Peach Nectar

by Jaya Mitai



Yes, this is the Unquitting story! And it's not nearly as impressive as Wings and Dreams was, but it will help quite a bit as it's basically in the same universe as Ashes of Chaos: Break of Dawn and the upcoming sequels. I've borrowed quite heavily from the writings and mind of Persephone Kore, and that has much to do with Hope being referred to as a healer. It wouldn't be around without her.

And mucho thanks to Alicia McKenzie, who beta-ed like she meant it! WHEE! I took most of her suggestions, but not all, and I'm sure she'll shake her head and mutter under her breath that I'm a git . . . and then slurp up some grapefruit pop.

Thanks also to Redhawk and Matt Nute, who beta-ed for a proper amount of ickiness, and I'm sure I still didn't add in appropriate ickies. And for all the people who told me not to quit, and were HAPPY that I came back after a four day retirement.

Really, I feel like Kaylee. =)

Disclaimer: Marvel's, but not really. Sunthy is all mine. Hope and Daran are Persephone's and mine, at least THIS version of her, and I will be extremely unhappy to see any of the three running around in fics unless Persephone or I are consulted. What isn't mine or hers IS Marvel's, but fortunately, this isn't being sold and no money changed hands, so no suing. Feedback is great,, and ask to pop-up or MST.

Happy reading. =)

His back ached dully, nothing compared to the throb behind his right eye as he stared at the monitor screen for unending hours. Time had almost ceased to have meaning for as long as he'd been sitting, sorting and sifting through the reports before weighting the results and judging whether they were worth his master's attention or should be shuttled to another officer for viewing.

Technically, this wasn't in his job description. In fact, considering his current military status, he shouldn't have access to any of these, and not only looking through them but sending them to other officers was a heinous crime, punishable by execution. Not to mention the wanton manipulation, changing words and entire phrases.

It wouldn't matter to the board that he was disguising the lack of grammatical knowledge of the reporting scouts, or their inability to dictate or correctly type into a monitor. It wouldn't matter that the only changes made would only make the reports easier to understand and reply to.

It wouldn't matter that all the work he had done was useful, and helpful to the military and to their current campaign.

All that would matter was that he was basically a servant, a gopher for an officer, and he was viewing, forwarding, and manipulating reports.

Fortunately, his employer didn't care.

Actually, that was far more apt than it appeared. His employer didn't care. About anyone or anything. Well, that wasn't precisely true. He cared about winning the war, not just the present campaign. He cared deeply about capturing the opposing rebels and killing them. All. Preferably by himself, but it was assumed he might accept help on this particular event. He cared about the performance of his troops, insofar as they won every battle. He cared a little for the younger soldiers, those that had lost their parents due to abandonment or death.

He cared if anyone failed him, or disappointed him in any way. He cared if his quarters were not exactly how he wanted them, his reports were not exactly how he wanted them, his armor wasn't exactly how he wanted it, his food was not prepared like so, and his orders were disobeyed or garbled in transit.

Past those few things, the Chaos-Bringer of New Canaan didn't give a flonq about anything. He had no love. He had no family to speak of. He had no children. Nothing personal about the man existed, save his grudges. Every hobby had some tie-in to the war and defeating the rebels. He did have a variety of hobbies, however, and while they all had a common element, they were far-reaching into the arts, sciences, maths, and occasionally politics.

He also had a certain fondness for peach nectar, but that was a taste that wasn't his fault at all. It had been carefully cultivated over the months by his servant. This fondness manifested in his reaching unthinkingly for the glass that should always be on a tray, a silver cup beaded with cool drops of water, condensation that would later be gathered by the hydroponics that sat in the center of the camp. And if, for some reason, the glass was not present, he'd hunt around for it a bit with the hand he was paying no attention to, then actually turn and look to his right before bringing his hand back to the keypad and getting a slightly bigger crease in the skin between his eyebrows, just over where his nose connected to his skull.

If he wasn't actively angry, he was happy. And if he appeared to be even a bit perturbed, or his eye was glowing, someone was going to die.

His protests the first time it had been offered were not slight. He'd thought it was too sweet. It was wasteful. It was unnecessary sugar. It smelled funny. It wasn't really peach-colored. It was too thick. It was too cold. It affected the way other foods tasted. Gradually, as the fruit juice choices had changed, he'd shown a subtle preference for peach nectar, judged by how slowly the nectar was swallowed after being taken into the mouth.

It helped that peach nectar was his servant's favorite, because the Chaos-Bringer wasn't that bad about sharing. Perhaps he knew the man had a penchant for it. But if he knew, he'd figured it out without mindreading.

While his servant was a mutant, his mutant ability made it impossible for him to ever become more than a messenger. His mutant ability was a form of psionics that simply made his mind impossible to read.

Sunthy rolled his neck carefully on his shoulders, closing eyes that instantly glued shut. He really had to remember to blink. One of these days he'd make himself blind. There was a series of tiny pops as his chin traveled along his chest, from his right shoulder to his left, then back to his right, before he let it relax and fall naturally back; here he froze for a moment, relishing the feeling of the muscles there fully relaxing and being compressed by those around them. He left his head there a moment before rolling first left, then right, and finished off the stretching by turning all the way in his chair, butt firmly in place, and popping his spine from top to bottom.

Around the seventh pop the tent flap cracked; he didn't even look up. The meal was in place, his cot had been made, the deemed worthy reports had been forwarded to his monitor, and not so much as a corner of a map was out of place. He'd aired out the blankets, kneeling rugs, and cushions, swept the sand out of the entire four-compartment tent, and even left a sugar-cured mint leaf on the pillow, some ancient custom about mint chasing away bad mouth.

When Sunthy was fully finished stretching and popping, he hunched up his shoulders, as tense and high as he could, then relaxed them, finally standing and turning to see an almost bemused looking Stryfe regarding him, apparently having just removed his helmet.

"Have to get warmed up before dealing with me?" Very dry, but the faintest tickle of humor. Actually, that was Stryfe's idea of cracking a joke. Getting a cheek twitch out of the General was more than some men would ever accomplish.

Sunthy bowed quickly and took the helmet from Stryfe almost before he held it out, putting it on the rack swiftly before walking around Stryfe to loosen his armor from the sides. "Of course, my Lord," Sunthy replied cheerfully, going about his work with an almost accustomed feeling. He'd taken care of the Lord General of the Canaanite Army for close to five months now, four months longer than any other man alive.

Actually, when you thought about it, the record was unbelievably outstanding. Stryfe, in one month, killed four personal servants. One of them, a female, lasted about a month and a few days before she was "fired," and until Sunthy, she'd had the record of longest life after going into service for the Chaos-Bringer.

So it was no surprise that he should be getting used to the sort of work he was doing. The weight of the armor, the tricks on how to get it off, though he suspected Stryfe was helping telekinetically on that one. Surely he wouldn't give up that secret, even to a personal servant. Particularly one he couldn't mindbond or telepathically read.

He noticed quickly that the auburn hair was plastered rather firmly to the Chaos-Bringer's head, and sweat trickled down his neck into the light tunic that protected his skin from the armor's chafing. It was unlike the desert-born man to overheat enough to cause that much water to be lost, and Sunthy frowned as he hefted off the shoulder-protectors and gauntlets.

Stryfe was characteristically silent as he was helped from the bulky yet amazingly light-weight armor, and stepped away as soon as it was done, back to the main compartment, where his meal awaited him. Sunthy dried and hung the rest of the armor with care, not even noticing his instinctive avoiding of the poison-coated spikes along the gauntlets and shoulders of the custom armor.

He'd only been in Stryfe's employment for five months, but already he'd watched the General contract a fairly rare virus, that he fought off without asking for a healer or anything to combat the symptoms. He hadn't seemed to be that badly affected, and he'd recovered before there'd been any noticeable change. The troops had not noticed the weakness, nor had his powers seemed to weaken, nor did he change his schedule in the slightest. And he'd recovered fine, eventually, even without healing and medicine.

However, his sleep had been cut drastically, and he had grudgingly allowed Sunthy, after the fifth or so time he'd prepared one without asking, to wrap ice in a waterproof cloth and place it behind his neck when he went to sleep. This had helped cool the fever a bit, and made his rest easier. And the water had later been used for face-washing in the morning, leaving Stryfe nothing to complain about.

And he was cranky when he was sick. Not that he ever admitted to it, and being male himself, Sunthy could certainly understand the logic. But cranky Stryfes tended to complain. A lot. In little ways, usually a gesture or an statement. Which had been lost on the troops and officers, as they rarely saw him out of uniform. However, if he was going to get dehydrated, and often refused to take the juices and canteens that were prepared for him in the morning, it would be a bit more difficult to hide, body-covering or no.

Sunthy polished the armor as quickly as possible, long strokes with a hide rag of the softest sort, making sure every fingerprint and every foreign substance from dust to things he didn't even want to identify was removed. Then he knelt, knee popping slightly, to a small compartment in the armor stand, withdrawing a wooden oblong container, almost twelve inches long, with rounded ends. He unscrewed the cap, careful of the brush inside, and painstaking added the gelatinous white stuff to the barbs on the wrists and shoulders of the now empty armor. By morning the poison would be dry, and clear, and hopefully no one would accidentally snag themselves on it.

Once finished, he screwed the container together again, tightly enough that his arms and wrists shook with the pressure he was exerting, and then placed it back in its compartment, shutting the door firmly. The poison Stryfe chose was extraordinarily expensive. Not to mention it dried fairly quickly in the desert heat, and should they run out of it in the middle of a campaign because the lid had not been screwed on tightly enough, the general would surpass annoyance and hit full-level anger.

Which, Sunthy noted to himself as he brushed off his hands, had never before been directed at him.

Once the armor had been taken care of completely, he grabbed a small basin and a pitcher, threw a handtowel over his shoulder, and entered the main compartment as quietly as he could. Stryfe had not touched the meal, a far cry from the ration bars that were standard fare. Sunthy would not allow him to eat simple, tasteless vitamins, and had found several ways to make the prepackaged foods more appealing. Tonight, he had crumbled a ration bar and mixed it with sugar-water, then used it as a coating for some fruit segments. He'd also managed to convince the cook to order some vegetables, and had steamed them himself in soy water, pouring the dehydrated sauce over them after they'd become tender.

Normally, this was one of Stryfe's favorite dishes, again judged by the time it took to consume it. Unlike the peach nectar, however, Sunthy had decided the faster Stryfe ate, the better. He particularly liked it when Stryfe actually stopped reading the reports to concentrate on eating, rather than wolfing as he was reading. And Stryfe, as a rule, did not wolf his food.

Tonight was no exception. Considering the plate was untouched, it appeared to be the exact opposite. Sunthy took up what he had discovered to be the desired position, to the right of the general, in peripheral vision, and remained still, so that Stryfe could see him if he chose but he would not be distracting. He also noted, with a slight irritation, that Stryfe had not touched the milk, either.

Stryfe was thumbing through the reports almost apathetically. They were all fairly good. The rebels had been chased as far as the northernmost border, and had been headed off as a large worm of them had tried to weasel behind the forward Canaanite forces. Furthermore, one of the scouts had had a visual of Dayspring himself in one of the known camps, which had been forced to retreat from Karhein Pass only a few days before.

Even the included vidfeed didn't seem to brighten Stryfe's eye, and he pushed the monitor away listlessly, to stare at his food. After a moment, he picked up the fork and poked at a steamed bean.

"Sunthy," he said softly, as he had every night since Haight had assigned him the servant, "if I could read your thoughts right now, what would you be thinking?"

At first Sunthy had been terrified of the question, as well as the piercing glare that had accompanied it the first night. It had become quite clear to him, that first week, that Stryfe deeply resented him for having an impenetrable mental shield that he could not control in the slightest. However, that fear had gradually faded, to the point that he'd started making jokes with it. That eventually had evolved into a nightly verbal dance that carried on until it was time for Stryfe to turn in, or they were interrupted by an officer. Judging that Stryfe continued to ask it, Sunthy was beginning to think the general enjoyed it as much as he.

"Well, sir," he said, equally quietly, "I'd be thinking, pipe am I glad he can't read my mind." He smiled a bit, and watched Stryfe stab the bean and eat it. "Then, I would be thinking that your feet are probably freezing, you've been pacing the sands outside for hours. After that . . . I'd wonder if perhaps I should summon a healer without your permission, since you seem to be a bit fevered, and I know that if you knew I'd been thinking that, I'd surely be incinerated on the spot. Then I'd remind myself that pipe, I'm glad he can't read my mind."

It was an unusually cold night for a desert, though they were in the northernmost Canaanite territories and now at the foot of the Stelee Mountains, which was why Sunthy had been so liberal with the use of water in the cooking. Steaming vegetables in a desert was a good way to get your ears removed by the officer in charge of water rationing. Although the fat, surly man often made allowances for Stryfe's personal servants, and was the very reason peach nectar and the other juices somehow always made it on the transports, no matter how far from the nearest orchard they had gone.

Sunthy put down the pitcher and basin on a table immediately to his right, for that purpose, and let his eyes wander the table, wondering if there was anything that might explain Stryfe's mood there. Nothing was out of place, down to the position of the plate and utensils, and the glass of cold whole milk on a small grass-woven coaster. There was very little condensation on the glass of milk, though, as the air was cool. Too cool to be causing Stryfe to sweat like he was. Evidently the man knew he was ill, for he didn't say anything at first, carefully chewing and swallowing another mouthful of the vegetables before speaking.

"That's informative. And what do you suppose I would do, if I could read those thoughts?"

Sunthy pursed his lips thoughtfully. "You'd wonder what duty I skirted or what girl I had taken time off to be with, that I would be so emphatically relieved you couldn't read my thoughts. Then you would go mucking around in my mind, trying to find either of those possibilities. You wouldn't find them, but by that time I'd be curled up in a ball with a bloody nose, and almost useless to complete my duties for the evening, which would displease you. You'd either have me taken out and beaten, or simply kill me on the spot. Either way, you'd get another servant whose mind you could read, and they'd last a week. And they would not be half so well-trained as I, so I could laugh from the afterlife about it afterwards."

Stryfe didn't chuckle, but the corner of his mouth turned up and he took a sip of the milk. "Is that so. You have quite a bit of confidence in your worth to me."

Sunthy hid a grin himself. "Of course, sir. If I didn't, I'd wet myself frequently, and I have quite enough laundry to handle with you, I'd hate to see my load double because lack of confidence inspired a weak bladder."

Stryfe nodded thoughtfully, replacing the glass still half-full, and he stood slowly, signaling that he was finished with his meal. Sunthy scowled a bit at the amount of food left. "You should eat more, sir," he suggested, in a far less joking sort of voice. "The reports suggest that we'll soon hit heavy fighting ""

"Are you insinuating I will not be prepared?" Yes, there was the trademark crankiness; somehow, all worry seemed to translate into hints of weakness. And Sunthy could understand that. He'd dealt with it the first illness, and now he considered himself a master at weaseling Stryfe into admitted he felt like dirt.

"Of course not, my Lord. I simply suggest you should eat the food provided for you because nothing causes my Lord more indigestion than being hungry during battle and not having time to stop for a bite of bread."

Stryfe seemed less than amused at the reply, but he was generally less than amused, so this was neither encouraging nor worrying. He had to know he was ill, again -- it had been weeks. Surely it wasn't a reoccurrence of the same bug? However, he also didn't return to the table, and Sunthy knew better than to leave the food there. Very, very infrequently Stryfe would stay up late planning with the officers, and request the food be reheated and served him. He was the only officer Sunthy had ever served that seemed to have no problems with the concept of leftovers.

Then again, to hear the soldiers tell it, Stryfe had had a few interesting years before Haight had managed to find him and elevate him to a place more suiting his birth. He'd been protected by his guardian, Ch'Vayre, but fled the palace after his father's murder. So he'd been in hiding for at least two years before Haight's scouts had managed to locate the young prince, only just after the Canaanites had proven dominance over the other warring Clans. The young man had leapt at the chance to lead the armies, and Haight seemed to have no problem with this. Stryfe was intelligent, extremely powerful, and quite capable, perhaps the best suited to properly challenge and defeat the rebels.

Not to mention there was that whole issue of his "looking " like Dayspring. The entire thing made Sunthy's head hurt.

So Sunthy stopped thinking about it, and gathered up the food, packaging it carefully to seal in the nutrients and moisture, and put it in a cooling pack, shutting the rectangular lid and listening to the air hiss out. With it came the scents of the food, and Sunthy's own stomach rumbled to remind him he had not yet eaten.

From there he poured some peach nectar from a covered decanter, replacing it in a cupboard, checking idly to make sure there was enough ice generated for a cold pack. While they had far superior chemical packs, in his opinion they stayed chill too long, and the patient ended up awake from the cold. Ice melted at just the right rate, and the water gave the neck proper support during sleep.

Then he carried the cup to the second largest compartment of the tent, the place Stryfe retired. He was lying on his cot in an uncharacteristically open way, arms above his head, his left over his eyes. He didn't move, though Sunthy was careful to make enough noise that Stryfe would hear his approach, and set the cup beside the man, on the stand that held his essentials.

Stryfe did nothing, neither dismissing him nor giving him another order, and Sunthy decided that he would stay, for a while. He wasn't sure if he should speak, though the silence bothered him a little. Had he been too forward? It was a constant worry, and while he became a bit more daring every week, he was fairly sure if Stryfe had a problem with it, he would make it very clear very quickly. And this simple silence, save Stryfe's slightly accelerated breathing, was not what he would have expected.

But the silence continued, and while Sunthy agonized over whether he should speak or not, the officer that rang the electronic bell was blissfully unaware of the entire thing. Stryfe cursed softly, then uncurled himself and with a grace that would make many men jealous, yet not half as effortless as was his usual, Stryfe gained his feet and left the room. Not even glancing Sunthy's way.

The officer spoke for only a moment, and Sunthy barely had time to register the words before he dashed -- as hastelessly and silently as only personal servants can -- and grabbed his Lord's cloak. Stryfe would not wait for it, but he would appreciate it on the walk back to the tent. He carefully threw the cloak over Stryfe's shoulder, moving with the man as he started to walk out of the tent to make sure it was securely fastened before stopping, and watching Stryfe walk away.

Then he retired into the tent to eat his own meal, which had been prepared exactly like Stryfe's. After all, there were certain advantages to be enjoyed when one was the Lord General's personal servant.

* * * * * * *

It was only five hours before dawn when Sunthy's light sleep was disturbed by the tent flap. He'd actually rigged it to crackle when opened, and while he was sure Stryfe knew that by now he hadn't once mentioned it or had it corrected. Which Sunthy interpreted as some acceptance that that was what his servant felt was necessary to keep the tent free of pests.

And pests, in Stryfe's opinion, seemed to range from insects and snakes to officers and messengers.

He gained his feet quickly, already going for the cooling pack when Stryfe stopped him verbally.

"That won't be necessary, Sunthy. Some water, though."

The voice was hoarse -- from yelling, one of Stryfe's hobbies that bordered into the arts -- and quite a bit strained, and Sunthy, in his still-sleepy state, dared more than he had in the past. He listened to Stryfe shedding his cloak on a chair as he filled a glass with cool citrus juice instead. It always seemed to ease the vocal chords. Although, it was acid, and Stryfe did have a problem with indigestion. It hadn't just been a joke. Sunthy prepared a slice of bread, spreading it thickly with the honey Stryfe called "wasteful" but ate all the same, and carried these on a tray to the bedchambers.

Stryfe didn't pay any attention as he took the glass, giving away the trust he had in Sunthy, which was tossed out the window about two seconds later as he spewed a mouthful of juice.

"This is not water." There was almost a tinge of anger there, but it was too tired to properly frighten Sunthy. "This is the first time you've disobeyed an order." That was far darker, and more malevolent.

Sunthy bit his lip in the darkness, lit only by the gentle nightglow of a monitor on a motion detector. "You're unwell, sir," he finally said, softly. "The juice will help restore your voice." He didn't have to explain to a seasoned general why a strong voice was an important asset on a battlefield. "The bread will absorb the acid in your stomach and allow you to sleep. My orders from Haight himself were to take care of you, sir, and that I intend to do. If you prefer, I will fetch water."

Then Sunthy bit his tongue. No matter how hard he tried, he never sounded submissive enough.

Either Stryfe was sick enough to see the logic, or too tired to argue further, because he drank the rest of the juice with loud, pained-sounding swallows and also accepted the bread, eating the entire slice. This surprised Sunthy, but not too greatly: the man was enormous, at six feet eight inches. It took a lot to fuel the fire that burned in his cells.

When Stryfe was finished, Sunthy took the plate, and his wrist was grabbed in a terrifyingly strong grip. It seemed to suddenly grow a bit darker in the room, a bit more chilly. "Do not disobey me again, Sunthy." The voice was low and still hoarse, and laced with ice.

He froze, expecting more, but nothing happened, no wall of telekinetically inspired flames tore him apart from the inside out. Nor did Stryfe release the bands of solid muscle from Sunthy's wrist until the servant replied. "Yes, my Lord," he nearly whispered, and was roughly shoved away, sending him back a step.

Stryfe's eye, however, was not glowing, and that gave Sunthy some reassurance. Had Stryfe meant to display how _well_ he was, he would have incinerated him for defying him so openly. Indescribably relieved, Sunthy retreated, and didn't have the courage to re-enter the man's bedchambers to offer the icepack.

* * * * * *

Sunthy paced back and forth in the main compartment, hands clasped firmly around a monitor and the various flashing reports. Most of which he'd perused. Activities in all known Clan Chosen camps. Movement in their direction. It looked like a perfectly executing attack.

Clan Chosen was attempting to go on the offensive. And the Lord General of the Canaanite Army was still in bed.

It was an hour till dawn. Stryfe should have been awake and finished with his breakfast hours ago. He should have bathed and read the reports and already issued orders regarding it. Furthermore, he ruled his officers with such an iron fist, they were terrified to take initiative on their own, and the antsy patsy undergenerals were hopping mad. In a half-hour they'd be sending their messengers to inquire when Stryfe was going to pull his head out of his ass and make a decision regarding the likelihood of Clan Chosen actually attacking them.

Stryfe was not awake. He was sweating like a pack animal, eyes moving rapidly beneath his lids in an exact copy of his uneasy sleep a few weeks ago. Sunthy was torn between cursing himself for not offering the ice pack and throwing the ice on Stryfe to wake him up. Much as the man didn't care greatly about his officers, he would care a great deal if they knew he was ill or weak in any way. And Sunthy had full confidence that Stryfe wasn't just being paranoid. They would take the advantage if they could get it.

That said, he had to make sure no one knew Stryfe was ill. Having Stryfe at least awake would aid in this endeavor, so he twitched his nose, rolled his head forward a few times, and entered his master's bedchambers.

For all the noise he made, Stryfe never woke. And even if he was immune to a telepathic attack, he was certainly not immune to the crushing force of the Chaos-Bringer's telekinesis. Which was a very real threat when waking a nightmare-snared telekinetic. So he approached rather loudly.


Nothing. Not so much as a twitch in his direction.

"Sir. It is time to rise." And not shine, hopefully.

Stryfe moved a hand several inches, from his side to his stomach.

Sunthy sighed, and reached out a miraculously steady hand, placing it on Stryfe's forehead.

Stryfe shook his head roughly to the left, and settled back into an uneasy sleep.

Furthermore, the man was burning up. Whatever his temperature, it was worse than the bug he'd caught a few weeks ago. It was also becoming obvious that he wasn't simply going to fight this one off.

Sunthy swore, which didn't rouse his master, and retreated to the main room, there sitting and unwrapping his fingers from a near-crushed, sweat-slicked monitor. He hastily typed in an address and waited.

Quite quickly a familiar face appeared, handsome if not young, tanned from countless days in the desert but not hardened, like one would expect a military man's to be. Furthermore, it was completely unmarked, and very smooth. This man had time to shave properly.

Then again, he wasn't a soldier. He was a healer. His name was Daran, and he was the most decent human being Sunthy had ever met. This had instigated a conversation into why Daran would be serving as chief healer for the Canaanite military that had ended with alcohol and female company. It had been quite an evening, but if Daran had ever explained it, Sunthy had forgotten it already.

"Sunthy. What's the problem?"

Sunthy glanced Stryfe's way. The man hadn't moved. "Ah, the General would like to review those numbers you sent. He feels as though some of the wounded you're counting out of commission might be faking injury or you're playing on the safe side, and would like to add those on your 'injured' list in calculating the forces he'll send to stop the upsurgence of the rebels." It sounded sufficiently Stryfe-like to get Daran here without anyone suspecting why the healer was needed.

Daran didn't catch on. "Oath! If they _weren't_ injured, I wouldn't call them injured! Stab his eyes, his forces double Clan Chosen! And we're going to be defending! Why does he need those soldiers?!"

Daran was another that tended to speak his mind more than was healthy around Stryfe, but as with Sunthy, Stryfe found too much worth in the man to get properly offended. Trustworthy healers were hard to come by, and Daran could work miracles.

"Er, you'll have to take that up with him. He said to send for you as soon as possible, so if you would please come -"

"Tell him I'm on my way. PIPE! The flonqin-" The monitor communication cut into Daran's cursing, mercifully saving him from broadcasting his treasonous thoughts on the matter.

Sunthy turned off the monitor, folding the sleek grey plastic in on itself, and resumed pacing and gripping. It didn't take Daran long to arrive, and in that time Sunthy had time to note that further verbal tactics seemed to be irritating Stryfe, and no less than four messengers arrived to beg audiences with Stryfe.

At the same time. Sunthy was almost positive they'd probably been standing out there a good five minutes, summoning courage.

Sunthy pulled back the tent flap with a crackle, and eyed the group. "I'm sorry, Stryfe is waiting for the healer to discuss some numbers, and when his calculations are finished, he'll be happy to speak with your --"

"Oh! But this is of a most urgent natu-"

"He simply must speak with Cratton immed-"

"This is ridiculous! Why won-"

"I'll be the first to agree he needs beauty sleep, but wh-"

Sunthy simply closed the tent flap in their faces. Unlike a room in the palace, however, this did little to drown out the din of four voices, oddly two bass and two tenor, screaming to be heard by the man inside. A glance revealed Stryfe hadn't moved.

Not even at the tent flap crackling.

Sunthy didn't want to think about what would happen to him when he had to wake Stryfe up.

The chime sounded again, the voices had not dissipated, and Sunthy glanced forlornly around for a bracer of alcohol before he reopened the flap.

His dark green eyes thunderous , Daran looked stonefaced and tired. "Reporting as ordered."

Sunthy grabbed the healer's arm, yanking him into the tent. "Ah, yes, Stryfe will be so pleased --"

Then he shut the flap, set the chime on soft, and turned back to a confused looking healer. "Where is he? I figured --"

Sunthy grabbed the blonde by the crook of his arm and dragged him towards the second compartment. "Ah, Stryfe has not yet woken. And he's feverish. And... I can't wake him."

Daran didn't waste time, striding into the bedchambers and laying cool hands on Stryfe thoughtfully. He didn't need instruments to tell Sunthy Stryfe's exact core body temperature, what was ailing him, and down to the day when he would die, if it was a fatal problem. At Daran's scowl, Sunthy suspected that Stryfe would not die, but was still very ill.

"Not poison," he finally commented, and pulled his hands away. "Not a bacteria, either. This feels like a virus."

Daran reached into his bag, fishing around for the proper hypo. "Wake him. I need to take a blood sample."

Sunthy stared at Daran.

The older man continued rooting, voice giving away his annoyance. "Look, I'm a healer. Chances are he'll wake violently. I can heal you, but I can't heal myself. Now, would you please wake him?"

"Great," Sunthy muttered under his breath, uncurling fingers and wondering if he'd still have them in a moment. "Don't worry, if you die, I can fix it."

Daran glanced up with a "Well?" look, and Sunthy proceeded to touch Stryfe gently on the arm.



No point in wasting time. He yanked the arm, shaking the entire cot with the motion. "STRYFE!"

Then the world moved, and when it settled, he was on the ground, a crushing blanket of nothing pinning him too tightly to breathe, and a crazed looking Stryfe was towering above him, a foot at either hip. It took Stryfe a few seconds to figure out where he was and who was lying at his feet, and even then, he blinked several more times before he released Sunthy, with a curse.

Daran spoke before Stryfe decided his slave needed to be disciplined. After all, Sunthy had lasted a long time. It would be a shame if he left now.

"Stryfe. My Lord. You're ill, and I need to take some blood."

Stryfe gave Daran a sour look, but seemed to agree, as he sat heavily on the edge of the cot and made no other motion than to look at the monitor on his bedtable, and curse again.

Sunthy scrambled to his feet, getting out of the way of the healer as he painlessly took some blood from the top of Stryfe's shoulder. Inserting the needle containing a mere two drops of liquid into a hand-held monitor, Daran's eyes reflected the play of light as the monitor went through the archives, trying to find a match for the proteins it had discovered.

When it seemed to freeze, Daran's statement became even more tired. "Stryfe. Did you have bushpox as a child?"

The Chaos-Bringer didn't even bother to move. "Probably not."

"You do now. You're dehydrated badly, your fever is over one hundred and two, and if you were anyone else, I'd have you sedated and in the medbay faster than you could TK me across this tent."

Stryfe looked up, but the statement was more droll than challenging. "Is that so."

Daran tossed the monitor onto the cot beside Stryfe. "Yes, there's a vaccine, of course. And there's a treatment, a one shot rather than a series, but you'll be feeling like rotting vegetation for a good three days. If you exert yourself often and don't hydrate yourself correctly, you could possibly die."

Stryfe had the good sense not to say anything to the lecturing healer, but it was clear he was thinking about it. It was clearer still that he was simply too miserable to summon the energy to either open his mouth or tell the healer telepathically, because Daran was now mixing two vials as though there were no angry voice booming in his mind.

As soon as Daran stepped forward with the vial, though, Sunthy moved. Between the healer and his charge. And for once, he was truly glad Stryfe couldn't read his mind. Mean bastard or no, Stryfe was his responsibility, and it was obvious the man was not worried about taking care of himself.

Daran gave him a steady look. "It's not poison."

"I know." Sunthy rolled up his sleeve deliberately and waited.

The healer glanced at Stryfe, who was merely watching, shrugged, and injected a tiny amount into Sunthy's bared arm. No swelling, no pain, no dizziness. Sunthy forced the healer to wait a full fifteen minutes before he moved, and Stryfe received the shot like he would the voice of a particularly sniveling servant.

Then Daran handed Sunthy three packets. "Mix this in a canteen of water apiece. Stryfe, you need to drink all three today, and tonight I'm going to check you over again." He received, finally, a glare. "No, no one knows. Sunthy had me summoned because you wanted to discuss the numbers on my last report."

Stryfe finally did speak. "I do."

Daran glared at him. "I'm sure. We can do it tonight. If you don't drink the three canteens, you will be risking passing out. On the battlefield, I wouldn't advise it." Then he followed Stryfe's gaze, to the armor. "Absolutely not. Too heavy, too hot. No," he said firmly, as Stryfe opened his mouth, and the man finally stood, eye glowing faintly.

"I know you have the power to declare me unfit for duty," Stryfe said, dangerously softly. "But you won't. Nor will you dictate to me how I run a military campaign. That is all, healer." And then he walked to the four compartment, the bathing area, without another word.

Daran and Sunthy exchanged looks, and then Sunthy released a shaky sigh.

"You were this close to being dead, Daran."

"Don't let him put that armor on." The healer looked adamant. "Does he know about Clan Chosen yet?"

Sunthy shook his head. "No. I'll get him briefed, but . . . how do you expect me to not get him into his armor? He can put it on by himself, you know. He's a big boy now." Another wary glance at the empty doorway.

Daran shook his head, and passed Sunthy another package. "This is a sedative, it will help him sleep. Aa! Don't give me that look. It's mild. He'll never detect it." Sunthy gave him a decidedly skeptical look.

Daran grinned disarmingly. "What? He's going to read your mind to confirm his suspicions?"

And then the blonde-headed man was gone, a scowl on his face, leaving Sunthy to deal with whatever emerged from that bathing area. Alone.

* * * * * * *

General Cratton entered the tent as Stryfe's servant pulled it open, and stared at Stryfe in complete shock. He'd never actually seen Stryfe in anything less than at least standard armor; the sight of the Chaos-Bringer in nothing more than a pair of loose pants that cinched just above his waist, hair slightly damp from what he could only assume was a bath --

The man was disgustingly fit. Muscles were outlined on satin-smooth skin, which bore few scars or blemishes and was evenly tan despite the fact his usual armor covered nearly every inch of him. His auburn hair was clumping a bit, in its dampness, and a few strands of the long stuff hung in his face, giving him the appearance of being much younger, and less grim. The man was leaning on his forearms, studying a map, his feet splayed wider than his shoulders to lower his body to a height that was more comfortable for leaning on tables. His eyes were tracing a map, no doubt, and the odd golden one was glowing, just slightly.

Cratton remembered himself enough to bow, but it was swift, forced, and without respect. "Stryfe! What is -- this? We've been waiting for orders for hours, and you've been simply -- bantering with your manservant this entire time?"

Stryfe's head, which had been fixed on the map, turned with a casual slowness that caused Cratton to take a step back. "Yes," he said clearly. "I was. However did you guess."

Stryfe leaned up from the table swiftly, the motion almost violent, and stalked towards the other general. "Why is it that when my top generals are without orders the only thing they can do is whine and snivel and send more messengers? Is that what the Canaanite Elite would be without my leadership? Spineless ambitionless cowards? I could die any day on the field. It's hardly likely, but possible. Haight would lose the war against this tiny band of rebels with a group like you in charge." His voice dripped disgust.

"I am issuing few orders, Cratton. Furthermore, I'm not going to be with the forces that repel the rebels."

Cratton's thick jowl twitched as he started to say a dozen things, then stopped himself. "But, sir --"

Stryfe turned dismissively. "Dayspring wouldn't waste the men unless he needed something. He's in the mountains; he has water. He's either out of food, which is a possibility, or more likely, wants to distract the main force and hit the ammo dump. You will be leading the forces to protect it. And yes, you must think me a fool for leaving the others unattended." He finally met Cratton's eyes with something less than a glare. It was an icy lunacy that was far, far worse.

"I'll be in standard armor. Fighting side by side, like an Elite soldier. This bid will do no harm so long as you protect the ammunitions and weapons stockpiles. We'll see how the other generals fare when they aren't being held by the hand in battle."

For a moment, Cratton wondered if Stryfe was joking. Then, watching Stryfe's slow smile, he realized that one, the Lord General was reading his mind, and two, it would be an interesting and relatively risk-free way to test the competency of his generals. Stryfe periodically weeded out the weaker ones; perhaps this was another of his tests.

"Excellent, my lord."

Stryfe continued to grin, almost savagely. "I'm so pleased you agree. You've received a message detailing your troops and responsibilities. You're on your own, Cratton, but you should have no trouble. When Dayspring fails to locate me, he'll most likely pull his men back. He has few here, and fewer to waste. Dismissed."

Cratton opened his mouth, to congratulate his general on a brilliant plan, but it was clear Stryfe was in his own little world, looking disinterested, even tired, and poring over the map. Shaking his head, and trying to rid himself of the impression the Lord General was as fruity as a basket of tartballs, he ducked under the flap Stryfe's manservant held open for him.

* * * * * * *

Sunthy mixed a bit of honey with the mixture and tried it again. It was still salty, but now at least bearably so. And it wasn't poisoned; he'd been trying to get the mixture to taste right since a slave had brought a Canaanite Elite uniform in Stryfe's size. The man had denied help dressing, leaving his manservant to make the canteens as bearable as possible. He'd already made Stryfe drink one, and his charge was doing well, having drunk at least three quarters.

However, he was _not _ leaving the tent till he had his second. Sunthy was not looking forward to Stryfe's death. It would mean he'd be reassigned, and since Haight had assigned him to Stryfe under the assumption he'd be killed, and he hadn't, he was fairly sure his next assignment would be worse.

Even if most would argue that Stryfe _was _ the worst officer he could have gotten.

Stryfe's plan held merit, even if it was a cleverly disguised way of listening to the healer's advice. While Stryfe was stubborn, he wasn't stupid. It would be a tactical error to ignore the healer's words, and he could read Daran's mind, and therefore probably knew that the healer had spoken the truth. The campaign was long, and the weather was far cooler and wetter than they were used to. Pneumonia was spreading through the camp like dark fever, and large numbers were unable to make the morning routine, let alone competent to go into battle to protect the backs of their comrades.

When Stryfe emerged from his sleeping quarters, he was almost unrecognizable. He looked less formidable in regular armor, and younger. No less harsh, and he emanated no less presence, but he wasn't as . . . visibly dangerous.

If anything, that bothered Sunthy more.

Stryfe seemed to read his statement as easily as he would read a mind. "It's just for today, Sunthy. You look like a disappointed child on a holiday."

Not the comparison Sunthy would have made, but then again, he couldn't see his own face.

"Yes, sir." He handed Stryfe the canteen, and the man regarded it before securing it to the ring designed for carrying it. Soldiers never knew when they'd spend days on the field with no food or water, and a ration bar and a day's worth of water were standard gear, along with the plasma rifle hanging on his back, and the several ion blades he carried on his person. All had been altered by the man himself, and he probably had a spare power pack for the rifle.

"I haven't tried my aim in a while. This should be quite a day." Stryfe grinned almost wolfishly at his appearance, and left the tent, the flap crackling almost belligerently as he passed through.

Sunthy sighed, set down the jar of honey, and wondered why Stryfe had commented so much. Had he been trying to convince his manservant he was well . . . or had he been trying to convince himself?

* * * * * * *

The two men that had been assigned to Stryfe's trio were the only that recognized him in the army of over four thousand, and Stryfe had shushed them with a telepathic warning that loudly informed them if they gave away his presence to the general they would die. As simple as that. Now he could read from both confusion, awe, a little hate, and a determination to make sure they were at his side when he snuck up on Dayspring and ended this silly rebellion.

It would have warmed any other general's heart.

He hadn't taken much of the second canteen despite the relative heat of the day, waiting to save it for later, as he would certainly need it. Since he hadn't carried the third, he was going to have to be careful not to overdo it, but Daran's concern had underestimated his ability to work under conditions that would send other men stumbling into the sand. Stryfe had full confidence that he would survive the day, and that Dayspring would count his losses with a sob that night.

If he was capable of sobbing.

Once he could not find his arch enemy, Dayspring would predictably assume that he was up to something, then weigh the likelihood that it would be devastating to his troops or repelled by them, and then ultimately decide that driving his forces that far into Canaanite-held territory was a risk he wasn't willing to make, and pull them back. If not, Cratton was reasonably competent, and should be able to handle simple Dayspring maneuvers.

Then again, it was death to underestimate the Askani'son. He was clever. He was clever, and he was innovative. He was the only reason the battle had gone as long as it had.

Stryfe simply could not wait to watch that spirit break in his hand, like every bone in the man's body would. In his hand.

He hadn't noticed his fist curling. He was too busy tasting the minds of the nigh psi-shielded army awaiting them over the next ledge.

He didn't warn the men around him, the generals, anyone. He simply waited to see what would happen.

They were still in the foot of the mountains, and rather sandy soil was now mixed heavily with rocks and other, harder debris that would make footing something interesting. It also would make causing rock slides incredibly effective from the standpoint of a foot soldier. They'd brought fifteen flitters and two transports, but the rugged terrain made it harder for the transports to do any damage. The five-man flitters could do a bit of strafing, but rocking ledges afforded cover that would harm the Canaanites as well as Clan Chosen if it were destroyed.

Perfect place for a nice gritty land-battle. Stryfe bared his teeth in welcome as the first line was greeted by the swelling battle cry of the Clan Chosen.

It took a bit of surging and receding before the fifth line hit the wave of now-spread Clan Chosen attackers. It looked to be about half the known Clan Chosen forces, and Stryfe was mildly surprised that Dayspring would throw so many into a diversion. Given the terrain, this fight would be costly on both ends, and it wasn't like Dayspring to waste men.

The smell of blood hit him, finally, as a wind picked up a bit, being channeled to his left by a Canaanite intent on having her way with a small group trying to cut around the main. The orange-haired mutant was powerful enough to extinguish the engine on a flitter, and was covered by several young, enamored soldiers that had remarkable aim. She was a popular target for another weather-manipulator on the Clan Chosen side, and often both could be seen snarling and hurling insults and lightning in the air.

He had taken time to wonder if females were more genetically prone to that sort of mutation, and never been able to prove it, but given as almost all seemed to be female, it seemed to beg more research.

A plasma bolt cut past his right ear, and he dislodged the rifle from his back instead of answering with TK, finding the man that had fired at him and spending a half-second making sure his aim was just so before firing. The shot was true, striking the offending soldier in the head, burning off the right half of the man's face, the side he'd tried to remove on Stryfe. While a flankman congratulated him for the shot, Stryfe was already moving on.

It had been a long time since he'd fought on the ground. He couldn't do such great damage from here, but it was much more personal, and as the men around him settled into rage and bloodlust, he soaked it up like a freezing man would sunlight. It was invigorating, it was life! The feeling of such raw power, the bright lights that extinguished in such rapid bursts.

He moved forward in the lines as quickly as possible, not stopping as he stepped on the face of a downed Clan Chosen woman, shooting her in the gut as he strode over. Her body, undamaged until that point, jerked even as her cry cut off from the bubblings of blood in her throat. Stryfe disliked those that lay as though dead, and waited till the lines passed over before picking them off from behind.

Something about it seemed . . . unsportsmanlike.

Once in the thick of the fighting, he chose his targets carefully. The veterans and the youngest. It was the most disheartening to lose the children and the older, grizzled fighters. The boys, while mostly useless at first, broke the spirit of those fighting, and to lose the veterans damaged the entire fighting unit. He also fought to stay alive, attracting many odd looks when he lost his helmet and the Clan Chosen blinked at him, momentarily stunned by his resemblance to Dayspring.

It made them that much easier to kill.

He shied away from using his powers, preferring to use the power in the rifle and the ion knife he had in his other hand. The deadly combination worked far better than the manual would have the average soldier believe, and Stryfe mowed through an entire unit in a little under four minutes. He was covered in gore by the time he emerged, and his grin inspired fear in the young man that was facing him.

With a psimitar.

Stryfe laughed tauntingly. "What's this? A child? You'd best run to your mother, boy." He had no intention of letting the boy escape should he flee, but the young telepath did not disappoint him, taking a defensive stance that was fairly solid.

"You -- he said you --" The young man was momentarily at a loss for words, and then shuttled a respectable amount of telekinetic force at the general of the opposing forces.

Stryfe batted it away telekinetically, channeling the energy into collapsing a rock ledge, crushing the mainly Clan Chosen group underneath it. It was worth the Canaanite lives lost, at any rate.

"YOU KILLED MY PEOPLE!" The whirling blade came at Stryfe far faster than he expected, and he was forced to deflect the blade with his rifle, the sharp metal cutting into the barrel and making the weapon useless. No wonder the army seemed to go through so many of them.

Stryfe made a note to insist on better materials as he discarded it and pulled out another ion knife. "Did I? They must have been unimportant, all the wastes of oxygen start to blur together after a while --"

The irate young man came at him again, with a combination that would have left any other Elite Guardsman minus two arms and a head. However, Stryfe danced around the glowing blade, and calmly grabbed the young man in a headlock as he stepped too close, spinning him as the ion blade slid smoothly into the boy's upper back.

"That anger will be the death of you, child."

The boy didn't have breath to scream, or even say a word, though his mouth was working, and his eyes were wide. Stryfe telekinetically tossed the psimitar into a group of fighting soldiers to his left to discharge, supporting the boy as his legs gave out beneath him. The ion blade was far better than a metal one, in that it cut through bone as easily as flesh, and he allowed his support to slowly diminish, until only the blade was supporting the boy's weight. It cut upward fairly slowly, finally freeing itself after severing the young man's collarbone on the left side.

The young man was, of course, by this time not aware of the damage that had been done him, dead as the knife had cleaved his heart neatly in half. But the wound was very visible and the body would no doubt infuriate Dayspring to no end. Having lost a young, promising telekinetic in such a manner --

Besides, the telepathic scream had gone on for minutes, and its perfect fade had sent little chills up Stryfe's spine. What a waste of a fine mutant.

There was a yell that pierced even the screams of battle, and Stryfe looked for it, eventually locating another psimitar-wielding telekinetic, one he recognized and headed towards instantly.


His pulse quickened a bit at the sight of her. So she had felt the other die, and was moved? All the better. She was one he would not kill. Though their time together had been short, those months ago, he still couldn't quite shake the notion that with time, he could penetrate her admittedly formidable telepathic defenses, and injure Dayspring more greatly than any other thing on this planet could, even the destruction of his Clan.

To turn Aliya to his side would devastate his clone. It would break Dayspring where he stood, to feel her disgust as she severed her psilink with him only to forge one with his enemy, his template.

The concept was more appealing than nearly any other on earth, and he arrested his motion towards her. It would have to be another time. He wasn't stupid enough to mistake his slight dizziness for bloodlust. He knew full well he'd never manage to carry her inert body from the battlefield.

Then he swatted at his distracted mind, wiping his eyes. The plasma and smoke was thicker here, and it burned at his corneas. Where was Dayspring . . .? With the group attacking the ammo dump? He erected a quick TK shield around himself as he paused to look around, a shock of dark-gold catching his eye. Dayspring --

No. Stryfe couldn't help the grin that settled about him, and he changed his path directly for the muscled older man with the gold hair.


He had no distance weapon now, and had to work his way around behind the viciously fighting man carefully, lest he give himself away. He was stopped half a dozen times on the way, and acquired a cut just under his right eye from a fighter with swords. Stryfe gave in at that point, crushing the man's pelvis with telekinesis and leaving him to scream.

Not that this wasn't pleasing, in it's own way. Though he'd had to resort to his powers, he could feel the man's mind fading. The psionic atmosphere of a battlefield was unique to war, and the sheer intensity of emotion and projection was invigorating. Here was where things were decided. Here was where a man found his worth, his price, and ultimately, his weaknesses. Some telepaths hated it for the sheer fact that it was impossible to block out the dying, when so many lives were shredded apart.

That was the characteristic Stryfe liked best.

However, it had become a rather comfortable muted hum, and while Stryfe knew this was not particularly desirable, it certainly made concentrating on Tetherblood that much easier. He was within paces, and already knew how it would be. He would use no TK or telepathy. A blade in each kidney would guarantee Tetherblood's death on the field, but not before Dayspring had ample time to find his best friend's mind and feel his last agonized moments.

The Canaanite Tetherblood was matched against did not give away Stryfe's approach, though Stryfe read recognition in the man's mind. So he knew who the blood-encrusted man was coming to his rescue, and did not mind that the credit would go to another. Perhaps he realized he was outmatched. Tetherblood was an outstanding fighter, and officer. Well, leader, at any rate. Clan Chosen was so inform --

There was a burning sensation, through the din, and Stryfe was hurled to the ground. He rolled to his right, painfully, but could not shake the burning, high on his right shoulder. It felt like a glob of thick acid had been flung there, and was eating into him --

A plasma blast had cut through his armor. Excellent shot, whoever the marksman was should be pleased with that shot --

He found himself staring up at Tetherblood, who had somehow freed himself from his previous engagement and was nodding thanks to the unknown marksman, his gun pointed at Stryfe's chest unthinkingly, about to fire --

And then the man looked down.

Stryfe summoned some telekinesis, at the last second, but it was barely enough to deflect the reflexive blast as Tetherblood recognized him and fired, all at once. He was far too dizzy to repel the man, however, and that bearded face sneered in delight.

"You again."

Then the butt of a rifle struck his right temple, hard, and things started to slide together.

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

The air was too thick and too foul to breathe. It was hot from the battles, the plasma and melted rock and flesh and bone and armor and metal and Bright Lady only knew what else. He'd stopped looking a few years ago, and hadn't found the courage to start again.

His left foot crunched through something that might have, at one time, been attached to a living, breathing body. Plasma had an odd way of dehydrating the tissue it removed, leaving the flesh crispy, wrinkly, and nearly impossible to identify. In some of the more populated areas, despite the poison the plasma left on flesh, it was considered good fortune to have that battle nearby, it meant the locals would eat well for several days.

He'd stopped paying any attention to the young men that screamed it was indecent that he didn't send crews routinely to bury the dead. There wasn't much point, the dehydrated flesh and bone decomposed far faster than simple flesh, and in a week it would be a mound of rotted dust and char.

The plasma residue discouraged the growth of even the most hardy bacterias, so it was hardly a health threat. Besides, acid rains came to this area often. In a month, no one would ever know a battle had been fought here, save the furrows the strafing aircraft had left in the ground, and the damage wrought against the mountain itself.

Dayspring kicked a burning boot out of his way, tiredly approaching an intact body, Canaanite. Alive. Badly injured, but had he only had a concussion, it didn't matter. They were desert fighters. They didn't take prisoners. Period. Nathan lifted his psimitar, heavy and sticky with dried fluids and sweat, and let it fall through the man's chest, adding a bit of TK tiredly to make the death more swift.

Then he ripped the 'tar from the man's chest and continued his slow walk of the field, wishing he didn't need to breathe.

It wasn't so much the smell of ozone, or even burnt flesh. It was the smell a plasma rifle makes when it's set to overload and explode, killing everyone in a fifteen yard radius. It was the particular odor of boiled urine and something sweet Dayspring had never brought himself to identify. The body, the instincts of a man knew that these scents signaled danger, and in an effort to make him flee the place his stomach curdled, making swallowing a nauseating experience. The smoke was heavy, and oily, and seemed to stay in his lungs and nasal passages, coughed up later, mucus thick and brown.

It affected the way food and water tasted. It affected the way his 'tar felt in his hand. It affected the way his clothes moved, and clung to his sweaty body. It affected the way his wounds clotted. It was filth, it was hot, and he couldn't think of a worse fate than to simply be trapped on a field like this one, for eternity, killing the injured.

He rarely assigned men to it more than once, but he always accompanied them, and watched their futile struggles to keep their stomachs in line, ripped cloth from the uniform of the dead covering their faces in a futile effort to keep out the smoke.

Dayspring refused to see, stumbling over one of his own, not looking at the condition of the body as he retrieved the psimitar a few yards away. They couldn't afford to waste the weapons.

And hadn't that been the entire purpose of the exercise? Surely the Canaanites had been expecting an attack on their main camp. Clan Chosen was in desperate need of weapons and ammunition. The Canaanites had left enough at home that the forces sent had been easily cleaved into smaller groups and dealt with via snipers and others that had hidden in the mountains most of the battle. Only a token group had actually gone around to storm the Canaanite camp.

He hadn't heard from them yet, and he didn't really expect to. He'd pulled most of them away as soon as he'd realized Stryfe hadn't fallen for it.

But no unseen army had come in to break off the retreat, and a few thousand had remained to hold back the Canaanites as Dayspring and the main group had headed back to box the other army in at the foot of the mountains. Thousands of rifles, a month's supply of ammunition, boots, armor, some water, some food, and other supplies that Clan Chosen had been lacking.

One didn't have to hit the stockpiles to get what they needed, not when every Canaanite soldier went into the field equipped with everything they could ever need.

Then again, if Clan Chosen had the manufacturing power of New Canaan, it wouldn't have been an issue in the first place.

Dayspring nodded to a young woman being helped off the field, her leg ruined by molten rock that had cascaded from one of the ledges, after a flitter pilot had carefully melted it over the course of a few minutes and a continuous laser. It had been devastating, taken out an entire line of Clan Chosen forward, and their geokinetic had been unable to do anything about it, rearranging the mountain to free several hundred trapped under a ledge's collapse.

There. His section was finished. While he could go and help some of the younger men currently losing the ration they treated themselves to after the battle, he decided against it, instead wandering back to a land transport that was carrying off the wounded.

Dayspring nodded to his people, deciding to stand in a corner despite the seats that were offered him on the ceiling-less land-crawler that served to carry Clan Chosen back to their camp, a few kilometers away. The transport was full of the wounded, the open top the only mercy, as the people stank of cooked and rotting flesh, human wastes, death. The green-painted lorry of sorts trundled away on a chain of treads, as old-time war machines had done, a far cry from the swift flight that the Canaanites took for granted.

He chose to close his eyes to the injuries before him, and stare stoically at the distance, or was it exhaustedly? Where was Stryfe, what was the other man up to? Had that last force survived to make it back to camp? And how had the main force fared, against the main division of Canaanites? True, he'd walked the field, but too many corpses were unrecognizable, and he needed numbers.

He hit his head against the back metal wall of the carrier, not even noticing as his mind numbly turned over facts. Aliya was fine, was shuttling him info as fast as he could request it. The numbers weren't in yet, but the point of the battle had been a success. Now, if they hadn't lost more than they'd projected, they'd be out ahead.

Out ahead. How could one be out ahead when he'd just walked a ravine covered with bodies piled on bodies? How long would it be before there were no more living bodies to replace the ones that fell, every battle? How long before the people gave up, stopped joining Clan Chosen? How long before no new recruits took up the weapons of the fallen and continued to fight?

How could they be ahead, if it meant that thousands had died?

So they had their supplies. They could fight some more, even launch a successful counterattack from the mountains. It was the breather and the break Clan Chosen had needed to catch their breath, and a success the people had needed to bolster their spirit.

But it hurt. Years and years of fighting, and it hurt.

He didn't really known how much time passed before the transport finally stopped, and he wearily leaned off the support of the lorry and climbed off the vehicle, heading unerringly for a small tent where a bit of water deemed undrinkable but useable was always set aside for bathing. By the time he got to it, there was little left, chemicals and filters trying to make it fit for the next man to wash the blood and gore from his body and more water lost with every soldier. There were hundreds of such tents about the camp, this one the nearest to his ultimate goal, and despite the low level of liquid, he made do.

It wouldn't be enough to make him feel clean, no matter how hard he scrubbed or how much water he had, so as long as he emerged body-colored and non-stinky, he was happy enough. It didn't matter there was grime beneath his fingernails, and his hair still felt greasy. He was snuggleable, and he was reasonably sanitary.

He would settle for nothing less before he staggered off to his own tent, where a tired mother and a relieved infant were waiting for him.

His tent was quite a bit more grand than the others, but in a sort of homey way. The material was worn but well-patched, and repelled acid better than any other substance known on earth, coated in the resin secreted by a mutant they'd unfortunately lost in the battle before this. He'd acid-proofed all the tents, and the resin seemed to be holding excellently, not drying in the sun nor cracking off, as flexible as the material itself.

Pulling the flap aside, he spied the two soft bedrolls, sand-colored, and the low table where three monitors told him the status of the camp. A particularly beautiful brown-haired woman was sitting at this table, a child in one arm and a stylus in the other. She was making changes to the numbers, and didn't appear to have noticed he'd arrived at all.

He felt a smile split his face as Tyler didn't bother to look up from his mother's breast. At ten months, he was already starting to speak, though they were both sure this had to do with the telepathy they'd used to communicate with him before he'd even been born.

Nate bent and kissed Aliya, a quick peck before he sprawled out next to her on a bedroll. Tyler was quite intent on his meal, as he often was when his parents went off to battle and left him for hours before returning. Not only did he not like it, he felt abandoned, often, and also had discovered indignation, if a child so young could be so. He couldn't understand why in the world his parents would go off and do something and come back feeling so sad.

Once the baby had finished getting reacquainted with his mother, he was more interested in the world around him, and blinked large eyes at Dayspring.

"Da," he proclaimed proudly, and Nate grinned at him, taking him as Aliya offered and setting him against his chest.

"Hi there, little one."

Tyler scrunched up his nose and sneezed.

"Yeah, I don't much care for the chemicals either. I'll be sure to make myself more presentable the next time you see me."

Tyler blinked, then took an uncoordinated baby fist and attempted to rub his nose. That failing, he grabbed onto his father's.

Dayspring looked up as Aliya cursed, and her statement softened as she noticed their son attached to his father's face. "Losses heavier than we thought. Tetherblood just reported in the loss of all seven of his units. Only a few hundred men survived. He's on his way over."

Tyler released his father to crane around and stare at his mother. "Mu?" he inquired

Nate worked quickly to support Tyler's head as it sort of flipped back, though he didn't seem perturbed by the change in perspective. Once rightened, he looked around, and then screwed his eyes shut and his cloth diaper expanded as if by magic.

Aliya didn't even look up. "Your turn."


However, he wasn't really complaining. It was nice to have a child who could tell you exactly what was bothering him. That wasn't to say Tyler had manifested telepathy, though Dayspring was sure in his heart it would breed true. It was enough that both parents had a light psibond with their son. They knew what he was feeling when he felt it. It meant that he rarely, if ever, cried. He never had to, his parents always figured it out swiftly enough that it wasn't necessary. And when the enemy is combing the valley looking for you, a crying baby would be very, very problematic.

Tyler was very good about having his diapers changed. He cooed and grinned as his father tickled him, and was generally very still while he was rewrapped. That done, he was more than happy to curl up on his father's chest as Dayspring lay back down, and very soon father and son were in a light doze.

Aliya smiled fondly at them both, rubbing her temples and glancing at the worn monitor. The supply count was looking better all the time, if only they hadn't lost so many lives . . .

The tent flap was brushed aside, and Dayspring's eyes flitted open to take in the sight of Tetherblood, plus cargo.

His friend smiled in a way that made Dayspring think he hadn't quite left the battlefield. He was still in his armor, still covered with the battle, and over his shoulder appeared to be slung a tall Canaanite that had seen better days. It was this he flung onto the floor of the tent, then sighed and kicked him onto his back.

"Look what I found."

As the body finished being rolled over, Dayspring sat up with an immediate curse that had Tyler awake and whimpering. Dayspring immediately handed him to Aliya, who immediately reached for him, but Tetherblood rumbled a chuckle. "Don't worry. I wouldn't have brought him here if it weren't safe. He's going to be sleeping for a while."

Despite the standard armor, the standard issue weapons, and the plasma burn that encompassed his entire shoulder, the man looked precisely like Stryfe.

But why would Stryfe be out of his own armor? It would make him impossible to spot on the field, and it would have protected him from the shot his telekinesis should have, also. Dayspring had leapt to his feet without even realizing it, and stood over the unconscious man in something between a murderous rage and utter confusion.

"How --"

"I don't know. Marcil picked him off as he came up behind me. I never saw him coming," Tetherblood admitted, rubbing the back of his neck as if just noticing a cut there. "He used TK to save himself, so I know he's a mutant . . . got a little rowdy on the way in, but some nice officers helped me restrain him." A savage grin.

Stryfe certainly didn't look like he'd been capable of being rowdy. There was a huge gash over the right side of his face, still seeping blood, and his jaw was swollen, probably cracked. Through the armor it was difficult to ascertain other injuries, save the stink of the plasma burn. The telepathic spear Nate had hurled had been repelled, but by standard defenses, and a more in-depth scan revealed no evidence of great activity under the automatic mental barrier.

Stryfe was out cold, and probably going to stay that way for a while.

That didn't stop Dayspring from hurling the unresisting body against a tent wall he reinforced with his own TK. "Wake up, you motherless son of a flonq," he snarled, willing the man to crack an eye open, to realize where he was and what was going to happen to him. He'd taken Aliya and tortured her, he'd taken Tetherblood and tortured him, he'd even briefly captured Dayspring himself -- but it was nothing compared to what would happen to him in the Clan Chosen camp.

Stryfe didn't, of course, and a crushing telekinetic grip did little more to rouse him. The man was pale, from shock and blood loss, probably, and whatever other injuries he had, but Nate was not going to let him die this easily.

"Nate --"

He didn't even register Aliya's hand on his shoulder. "Hold off, he's worth something to the Canaanites. Yes, we got the supplies, but that doesn't mean --"

Tetherblood also spoke. "At least read his mind before you kill him. There's tactical stuff in that head of his that would be useful --"



Nate turned, stricken, and watched his son stare at Stryfe, pinned as he was to the tent wall. Tyler could already sense his parents' panic, eyes wide. "Da?" he repeated, unsure of himself. Both parents were so quick to send a #NO! Dangerous -# that Tyler ducked his head into his mother and started to cry, frightened.

Aliya held Tyler close, and rocked back and forth slowly, using it as an excuse not to meet Dayspring's eyes, and for a full minute, there was a tense silence in the tent.

Then Stryfe hit the ground like a sack of grain that's been cut from a supply hook. "Get this piece of trash out of my sight," Nate snarled, and Tetherblood obediently picked up the offending piece of matter and heave-hoed him out. Then stepped back, turning Nate to look at him, a hand on each tense shoulder.

One of metal, one of flesh. To match the eyes, one of fire, one of man. "Nate, listen to me. We'll get, oath, we'll get that useless tutor of yours to crack his shields. Get the information out of him. Maybe even patch up the shoulder a bit. Let him wake up. Trade him back for some more goods, or water, and make sure when he leaves that he won't survive his injuries. Sound like a plan?"

Dayspring wasn't even looking, but Tetherblood ducked his head a bit, forced Nate to meet his eyes. "Hey. Nathan." Tetherblood's fingers, crusted with blood, gripped the Chosen One's shoulders firmly, telling of the strength there. Offering it, if it was needed.

Dayspring shrugged off the hands. "Fine," he growled. "I don't want anything more wasted to keep him alive than is absolutely necessary." Letting Blaquesmith do the shield-breaking might be wiser, at that. There was so much he didn't want to see in that mind. He turned his back to Tetherblood, suddenly sickened by the smell of blood in the tent and his son's cries. "Go get cleaned up and get some rest. You can report later."

So much truth he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Tetherblood nodded to Aliya, who nodded back, eyes downcast. Her lower lip found its way under her teeth as Dayspring approached her, almost reluctantly, and wrapped his arms around her. She didn't lean into the embrace.

And Tyler kept crying.

* * * * * * *

Blaquesmith nodded to the weary Clan Chosen sentry, picking his way into the tent a bit warily, probes far ahead of him. He carried with him a hypo that was supposed to contain enough serum to keep Stryfe's telepathy under wraps for 12 hours. It would go into effect immediately, and unlike a machine that inhibited telepathy, it wouldn't make Blaquesmith's job harder.

Stryfe did not wake as the contents of the hypo found their way into his neck, nor had he woken when his armor had been removed, clothing stripped, and shoulder tended to. Whoever had done it hadn't done a good job; infection would set in, no doubt of that. Looking over the form critically, he could see also that there were cracked ribs, a badly sprained knee, and a variety of purple and off-blue bruises that were roughly the size of the man's head.

Furthermore, the man was blotchy in places with a dark crimson rash, almost like blood vessels had burst just beneath the surface of his skin. The healer had noted on his report, with some surprise, that it appeared Stryfe had a raging case of bushpox, and fever as well as dehydration would only make Blaquesmith's job easier.

The wizened Askani tucked his feet up beneath him, on air, and floated there comfortably for many moments, surveying the tent quietly. Only an overhead light and one chair adorned the plain tent, which left very few places for anyone to hide. It wouldn't matter if there was audio equipment hidden in the tent; it was visual he was worried about, and he didn't see any. After extending his telepathic shields to cover the entire tent, he levitated the body before him, so that Stryfe's head was within easy reach of his hands. Then he took a deep, calming breath, closed his eyes, and poked Stryfe's mind.

A telepath without his powers can still shield remarkably well. It's a trick in how the brain thinks, and how the thoughts were woven. Much like a child with a message written on a shirt, a telepath could still wrap his arms around his chest, and an adult would still have to pull those arms apart to read what was underneath. Granted, the difference in strength between having the telepathy and being inhibited would be compared to a child and a particularly strong adult, but the pulling still needed to be done.

The shields Blaquesmith met were well-crafted, with no large gaping holes where holes normally were. Inspecting them, it was easy to see what Sanctity had taught him. The old battleaxe's tricks were everywhere on that mind, he thought darkly, pushing where he knew the shields would give.

It was a lot like putting your foot on the back of a canvas and trying to rip the frame free. The shields were sticky, and instead of breaking nicely, sort of stretched, like synthetic polymers, and flaked a bit, but refused to give cleanly. This was actually worse; he was doing Stryfe much more harm having to dismantle them this way, but it was harder on the attacking telepath, so that style of shielding had its merits.

He only stopped when he hit something very hard and unyielding. Something so unlike the rest of the shields that it forced him to pause.

Looking around at the astralscape of the mind he was forcing himself through, he decided he might as well change into armor. The place was a desolate bog, the mud sucking at his feet with every step, and it was full of the prints of something large, heavy, and clawed. A guardthought, obviously, but those shouldn't still be around, with his telepathy inhibited. While some particularly strong wills possessed the capability to support them without telepathy, few telepaths, however capable, could manage this feat. The telepathic ones were so much stronger, and easier to form.

Blaquesmith slogged through, towards what appeared to be a perfect, silver cube in the bog, and noted with distaste that he was not struggling through mud.

No, not if that bit of skin clinging to a piece of skull was any indication.

He was able to pick out more of the place as he fought his way in, as the weird orange light seemed to brighten as he traveled further into Stryfe's mind. It was obviously the light of fire, somewhere in the heavens, as though the tops of the thick, damp clouds were aflame. He was ignoring his ability to telepathically "smell," knowing the stench would send him into psychic shock. Perhaps that was the defense Stryfe wanted here? He would have ample memories of the odors of battles, and afterwards, and here he was putting them to good use.

There were now other structures, besides that perfect, unmarred cube, and they were as rotting as the bodies under the telepath's feet. Plasma cannons sinking into the bog, a few trunks here and there, some human, some plant. A few a weird amalgam of tree and human, and even more disturbing, as those seemed to move a little bit, like a human traveler too exhausted to take another step, but struggling on through the endless muck anyway.

The ground was, in the orange light, the exact color of thick, congealing, darkened blood, and Blaquesmith took the time to wonder at all the detail Stryfe had added, yet left out. There were no fires burning, no other light sources. There was no wind, the air was very still, but then, shouldn't there have been insects? The place should have been crawling, but wasn't.

Probably because Stryfe hated insects. Not that he could possibly love a landscape like this, but why else --

Or the giant clawmarks he'd seen were from the insects, and in this mindscape they took the form of the guardthoughts. Giant bugs.

Mindscapes often lied about the inner person, specifically designed to evoke a reaction in the person they were dealing with. But Stryfe was deeply unconscious, and he shouldn't have been aware enough to realize who was intruding. Maybe he put on this show for every telepath that decided to visit.

Blaquesmith slipped through the sludge, finally only a few yards from the cube that somehow hadn't grown larger as he'd approached, staying the same size despite perspective being shifted. He probed the construct, but it didn't yield, floating there in the bog, not even casting a shadow from the sickly light that didn't seem to be coming from anywhere in particular. The fact that it wasn't interacting with the mindscape was . . .

The elder telepath hesitated, then cast a shield around the cube, sufficient to contain a relatively powerful trap. If it wasn't interacting with the mindscape in any way, then the mindscape wasn't aware it was there. And while he could see the rest of Stryfe's memories, now, the actual rotting carcasses in the sludge, he could see that they were, literally, rotting in the sludge. A part of the mindscape.

Stryfe didn't know that this was here. Could it be something Apocalypse had left behind . . .?

Curiosity got the better of Blaquesmith, and he forcefully probed the cube. It shifted, spinning a bit, but there wasn't enough light in the mindscape for the gleam to be dazzling. Or dangerous. A second, powerful probe sent the cube spinning faster, whirling about and now starting to move from its spot in space in a slow circle.

On an invisible axis, it turned and turned, and without further probes started to spin faster and faster. A slight wind picked at Blaquesmith's cloth guards on the armor, and gently urged him toward the spinning cube. A tiny bit of the sludge splotted a few inches in that direction.

Bright Lady. He'd triggered a mindwipe.

Since that would not only make having Stryfe's mind useless, but possibly kill him as well, Blaquesmith hurled energy at the cube, willing it to spin in the opposite direction. The wave of mental energies struck the flat side as it was spinning counterclockwise, and the cube shuddered, the structure shivering but not stopping.

More of the sludge was moving, the muck beneath the cube now starting to form a crude-looking whirlpool, slowly beginning to draw in the filth around it.

Blaquesmith hurled another wave of energy, and while the cube shuddered again, and lost a bit of momentum, that was it. He wasn't going to stop it on this level, not without killing himself.

The Askani threw himself back to his body, floating undisturbed in the quiet tent, oblivious to the storm beginning in Stryfe's mind. It had only been a few seconds, but already the body was reacting to what was happening to the mind, and the beginnings of seizures were tickling the inert body.

He took Stryfe's head between his hands and dove in, head first. Past the astral images, straight to the brainwaves. He had to find it and cut it out, whatever it was, before it killed Stryfe.

It was difficult to wade through the mind he'd so carefully laid open. Stryfe wasn't precisely sane, nor was he happy about the intrusion, and that coupled with a telepathic device trying to disassemble his head was making it extraordinarily difficult to locate a bit of brainwave that wasn't behaving like the rest. He knew where to look, it was something deep down, had been there for years. But finding it --

What -? No, that was scarring, from something. Blaquesmith felt the sympathy pains of an army crawling into his mind through his eye, trying to squeeze him out, trying to make him smaller and smaller until he simply winked out of existence.

Well. So that was what happened to Apocalypse's hosts.

Time passed in a usual fashion here, and Stryfe was beginning to convulse like he meant it, a slight stream of urine trickling right through Blaquesmith's telekinetic grip and spattering on the tent floor as the seconds ticked by. The Askani tutor chewed on his lower lip, beady eyes squinting with the effort of listening to the waves, figuring them out, moving on. There -- no!

If only the man wasn't so flonqing unusual in his patterns!

He finally isolated the anomaly, using his telepathy as one might a sledgehammer, to break up and force the errant thought pattern to straighten out, become like the ones around it.

It all happened in the span of seven seconds.

Literally the moment the rogue wave had settled out, Stryfe's body ceased spasming, a residual twitch or shiver now and then running the length of his suspended frame. Blaquesmith paused to gain his breath and send out a brief message to a questioning Dayspring that everything was under control.

Nathan clearly wanted more information, but Blaquesmith pretended not to notice, pulling away and submerging beneath the shield that protected the entire tent. He hated to be so cold, but he simply had no choice.

By the Bright Lady's words, he could not reveal what he found to Nathan.

No more than he could remove Stryfe's powers, or tell Aliya for certain if Stryfe really had violated her in the way she feared most. Rachel had never been wrong in her predictions, and he'd sworn to obey her every word, but this oath was one he was finding harder and harder to honor as time went by.

It was so easy to recall why he had made the promise, so long ago. She had been so beautiful. She had illuminated the day's sky with her light, even in her scorn he'd basked. He knew now that she'd done all she'd done on purpose, from the initial refusal to the eventual seduction, and that was what it had been, telepathically or otherwise. He'd never pleased her like she'd wanted, but he'd tried so hard.

"You must, Blaquesmith. You shall outlive me, and it is your duty to protect the Chosen One. You must swear to me to hold true to what I have foretold. You will teach him, you will protect him. But there are things he must not know, and they are many . . ."

He'd nodded and scraped and made that promise. He'd never suspected, at the time, she'd let any harm come to Dayspring because of it.

Looking at this mind, and knowing he had to let Stryfe go, he wondered if this would be Rachel's first mistake. Mind laid bare, it was so obvious, Stryfe's hate for Dayspring, his warped views on things making it impossible to hope reason would ever reach that mind.

Stryfe wanted nothing more than to crush Dayspring in his hand, make it so that Nathan had never been. Blaquesmith wasn't even to tell Nate that he wasn't the clone. It was imperative Nate find this out at some later time, for some later situation.

Just like he was not to know the First Ones had come, that Rachel had brought them to the future on her deathbed to raise him.

How could she have so much love for her brother, yet force him through such utter misery? Stryfe, left to his own devices, had already hurt Nathan so badly. The tortured look on that face after a costly battle, the guilt his prodigy felt for not loving Tyler whole-heartedly, and the pain he felt for doubting Aliya when she insisted she wasn't sure, but never letting him read the memories there.

And Tetherblood's capture, the fact that Dayspring would find himself back in time, fighting Apocalypse yet again . . . why must he not know he was the original? Why must Stryfe be allowed to live, when he would only bring misery? Why must they manipulate him so?

Because he is the Chosen One. Because he is the Hope-Bringer. Because it is the way the Bright Lady said it must be.

What is, is.

Blaquesmith eyed the body for a few more moments, debating whether to call a healer. His TK had held the body mostly still, though the seizures had been meant to be the kind that broke the back. Reminded suddenly of the reason for his staring, Blaquesmith poked cautiously back into the mind under his fingers.

The structure had been mostly destroyed, and the pieces were in the whirlpool shaped circle of muck, with bits and pieces of other memories and thoughts, disguised as rotting limbs, poking up through it. Redressing in his standard tech armor, he distastefully fished out the silver pieces, and tried to arrange them in some sort of order.

/ Stone under his knees, cutting them. He was dripping sweat, blood was running into his eyes. He was shaking his head, trying to sling it out, but he wasn't too coordinated about it, and someone cursed ---/

/ Ch'Vayre's death cry rang in his ears, so unlike any other death he'd experienced, so close, and so painful, that he cried out himself. He was disoriented, and ran into what felt like a wall, tumbling head over heels down the stairs his bonded guardian had forced him up. No matter what he did, he couldn't shield, the bond had just snapped ---/

/ Haight's eyes were burning into his, angry and concerned at the same time, and then the man released his hair, and his chin fell back to his chest. The floor in the royal hall was much nicer to look at, he thought whimsically, before weakly shaking his head. He had to keep them _out_, and he couldn't even remember why. He was so tired, he was so tired. Why did he have to keep awake? His head hurt so very badly ---/

/ Something cracked him across the back of the head, a person attached he hadn't sensed coming. Ch'Vayre reacted even before he could get a TK shield up, and he heard the clash of metal on metal as he clutched at his shattered-feeling head. He couldn't properly see, let alone concentrate his thoughts to properly demonstrate what happened when you struck the son of Apocalypse ---/

/ He tried to pull his face off the floor, his forehead cut with the impact of being shoved forward when bound hand and foot. There was a heavy knee, on his back, pressing him down as something burned into his neck. 'Stab your eyes, don't you know --"

And the chilling answer. "Yes." ---/

/ Shattering pain, the perfectly structured shield falling into pieces that seemed to stab into the surface of his mind, and he screamed on so many levels, but they didn't flinch. Men, in his mind, their foreign thoughts winding into his, no, he would fight them, he was strong ---/

Blaquesmith shook the last shard from his hand, watching it fall into the muck. There was still the largest chunk, to be read, but he was almost sure he knew what it held. Bracing himself, he kicked it over with his foot, and then leaned down to touch it.

It didn't seem to have any impression of Stryfe on it. It was a very forceful instinct that screamed Haight was not to be attacked, never. He didn't want the throne, he wanted the army. He wanted to fight off the rebellion, he wanted to see Haight excel in the political field. After all, who wanted to deal with the boring affairs of government when there was a war to be fought?

Blaquesmith turned the block over in his hands, feeling the impressions of the constructors. Very little was left; they hadn't wanted to be found, should Stryfe have ever discovered their implanted suggestions.

So that was why Stryfe had chosen to shield the way he had. Losing his psibond with Ch'Vayre on top of having one shattered by the combined efforts of telepaths. Drugs and torture had been involved, but he was sure he'd find no such memories in Stryfe's mind. So it was sheer instinct on Stryfe's part to shield differently. While Stryfe himself couldn't remember the pain, his subconscious did.

Blaquesmith stood ankle-deep in the rotting flesh, watching the sky boil with dark anger at his continuing presence. Stryfe knew, on some level, that he'd just been badly damaged, and he wasn't pleased.

Oh, if only he knew the extent.

Regretfully, Blaquesmith reconstructed the cube, from Stryfe's memories of being hunted down, Ch'Vayre killed to make him easier to capture. Concussed, then drugged, he'd fought them tooth and nail. Long enough to be taken to Haight himself and finally broken in the palace.

That was why Stryfe had never challenged Haight for New Canaan. Because in his mind, he didn't want the job.

It certainly didn't explain the hate. As hard as he looked, he could find no evidence of telepath-induced loathing of his twin. His template, really. Stryfe was, however more perfect, the clone, and it appeared that his hate for Dayspring was his own.

Perhaps the only thing that was his. Just a tool, for those more powerful. First for Apocalypse, now Haight.

And, in the end, apparently a tool for Rachel to use to manipulate Dayspring.

Wasn't that what he was? Blaquesmith reflected moodily, setting the cube back up. He was nothing more than Dayspring, really. Just a tool in her fight against Apocalypse. Her tools to make her predictions a reality, at what cost? And that begged the question, if Aliya and he and Dayspring and Stryfe were all just playthings of Rachel's, then whose shelf did she adorn? Who directed her actions?

Blaquesmith hung the cube precisely where it had been, minus the mindwipe failsafe. If Stryfe hadn't noticed it with Sanctity's teachings, he certainly wasn't going to notice it now. And if he did, so much the better. Perhaps if Stryfe realized what had happened, he might ally with the rebellion, and while with this hate he would never work with Dayspring, perhaps he would stop his attacks on Clan Chosen, and turn the Canaanite army against Haight.

Then again, which would be the better ruler? Haight was a tyrant, but Stryfe . . .

Blaquesmith slogged through the muck, fishing out the pieces of Stryfe's mind that had gotten sucked down, a few too badly to recover. Then he kicked at the sludge until it no longer appeared to be a whirlpool, the telepathic equivalent of picking up the residue. Stryfe must never know that his shields were actually penetrated, but he'd have a hell of a headache after all this.

Almost for himself, he glanced into one particular memory, and smiled, a little sadly.

Then he began orchestrating Stryfe's escape. The serum would only keep him out a bit longer, he'd watered it down significantly. But he had to be careful. Stryfe was in no condition to properly escape. And he wasn't about to sacrifice any Clan Chosen life because Rachel said that Stryfe must be free at all times, like the Chosen One, to do what he was fated to do.

Not a single sentry was going to die when Stryfe left the camp tonight, no matter how odd it was going to look. He might be a tool, but he wasn't a mindless one.

* * * * * * *

Cratton snarled at Nimod. "You fool! Haight's orders are clear! Don't tell me you're upset about his departure --"

The undergenerals looked unconvinced as Nimod took his seat, scowling. "I think it's premature --"

"He's dead. He was in regular armor, pipe only knows what the flonqhead was thinking, and he got himself killed. You _heard_ Haight! The man couldn't be happier! He's already won us the war, gentlemen! All we have to do is take the initiative and finish the job!"

The heavy crimson tent flap shifted, admitting an out of breath page to the cooler air, filled with the scents of sweat, worry, fear, and fruit.

"Sirs!" The page gasped a bit before continuing, keeping her eyes averted. "Scouts to the west, east, and north. Clan Chosen. Out in hordes."

Nimod half-rose again, looking more defiant with each passing moment. "I'm telling you, he was captured. And the scouts probably mean he's escaped. Our telepaths felt something going on over there --"

"Haight's orders were to move right along and assume Stryfe is dead --"

"Yes, and have you take command. What if you're wrong, and Stryfe comes back to find himself usurped? Will you step down as willingly as you step up?" This from Ka'lynn, who until that time had been silent. As the only female general of a division of the Canaanite forces, she'd learned long ago that the men didn't care much for her opinion unless they had to.

In fact, the truth was opposite. She often waited to give it until it was too late to do any good.

For anyone else, that is.

Now all eyes were on her, and she rose confidently, with none of the simpering Nimod had displayed. _Don't be a fool, Cratton. Stryfe is more powerful than Dayspring. Furthermore, given the . . . issues between the two, it would be foolish to believe that Dayspring would have executed him so swiftly. Or to believe that Stryfe would be less capable on the battlefield because he was dressed like an Elite soldier. You and I both know these uniforms mean nothing out there." She gestured at hers with disdain.

"They wouldn't be looking for us. They already know where our camp is. They wouldn't be out in droves unless it was something valuable they'd lost. If it's their leader, all the better. If it's our leader, we need to be out looking for him like good little soldiers, not moving into his tent before the body has been found."

There were nods of agreement all around, and Ka'lynn dismissed the page with a look. "We all see your point, Cratton. But we also all see the damage premature actions can do. And what you propose is premature, Haight or no. He isn't here, and frankly, this pleases me."

There were a few chuckles. It was widely known she'd turned down Haight's advances on more than one occasion, and even insinuated it was because she was in a relationship with Stryfe. Which was the rumor around camp, though they never seemed to be in the same place at the same time. There was also speculation on why she would be driving a wedge between their Clanleader and their Lord General, ranging from her actually liking Stryfe to encouraging him to overthrow Haight.

However, Stryfe seemed content where he was, and the majority had not decided if they would prefer to back Haight or Stryfe. Talk about a fine line between the lesser of two evils . . .

The same page came stumbling back in, and Ka'lynn eyed her coolly. "More news?" She spoke right over Cratton's "What is the meaning of these disturbances?!"

"Stryfe, ma'am . . . at the north border. The healer was sent out --"

The generals' tent emptied in the time it had taken Cratton to turn green.

* * * * * * *

Sunthy flitted by Daran's side, helpless to do anything but watch as the man's hands glowed. All over Stryfe's body, where there were bruises or burns, they healed. The hideous pits where Daran had used a knife to dig out infection filled like magic. Even the rash of the bushpox faded, a little.

The healer was only able to sustain the healing for around eight seconds, not long enough to restore the man to health, and he staggered back exhaustedly before falling into a chair he'd put right behind his butt only a scant minute ago. Perhaps he had known.

Sunthy swatted his mind. Of course he'd known. Daran had been a healer for years, he knew his own limitations. Apparently he was quite jealous of the healer Clan Chosen had, as well. Some of the soldiers that had defected told stories of Hope, who somehow used her chronological abilities to heal the wounds of others.

She also happened to be Aliya's sister, and Aliya was the famed Jenskot, wife of Dayspring. Which put her in the category "Never even going to speak to Daran, let alone get into a discussion about the art." He felt almost bad for the healer at times.

Sunthy stepped past Daran, to look at Stryfe. The gash on his right temple was reduced to a simple raised red area, and his jaw looked better. However, he was still unresponsive, and when he gently tapped the Chaos-Bringer's cheekbones, he didn't get a reflexive eyeflinch.

"He's still not registering."

Daran laughed dryly. "He was in Dayspring's camp for a day. He got the pipe kicked out of him, his temperature is one hundred and four, he walked four kilometers in the heat of the day with broken bones, and managed to telepathically cover his tracks the entire time. Our own sentries didn't notice him until he fell flat on his face fifty yards from them. He'd traveled the first five hundred without their seeing even a footprint in the sand. Even though his blood is full of mutant inhibiting drug.

"He's in a coma, and he's going to be that way for a while. No, I don't know how long. No, I can't do anything about it, and I wouldn't recommend anyone try. Not since the last telepath that tried to get into his head was Dayspring, probably. Oath, they might have even had some sort of power-feedback. I swear they either have to be twins, or one is a clone . . ." Daran trailed off.

Sunthy glanced back at the healer, noting the dark bags forming under Daran's eyes. "Then you can't do any more good staying awake. I'll have someone escort you back."

The healer nodded tiredly. "Else that flonqing general will have me killed for saving Stryfe's life." He looked like he wanted to continue, but was too tired.

Sunthy simply nodded, and grabbed a monitor, summoning the guard outside to escort the healer back to his tent. Then he turned back, and looked at his pale charge.

Still the fever, and the coma. No telepath would be brave enough to probe that mind, not till Stryfe was awake. Listening to the sentries outside the tent, it seemed to be camp rumor that Dayspring had tried telepathic overwriting and failed, and Stryfe had somehow woken and escaped, which was why Clan Chosen was still searching for him.

Cratton was demanding that a telepath be shipped in from the capitol to make sure Stryfe really was Stryfe, but that was being fought down by the other generals, who firmly believed the evidence pointed to a failed attempt to turn Stryfe, not a successful one.

Sunthy contemplated this as he pulled a light sheet over Stryfe's still, mostly healed form. And he wondered what he would find, if he could read Stryfe's mind.

Blaquesmith, many miles away, knew exactly what Sunthy would have found, had he been able to channel his power into reading minds, not shielding from them. He would have found a little boy curled up under a blanket at the foot of a huge narry tree, in the gardens of a particular palace in Akkaba. The boy would have been sobbing, smarting from the blow his father had dealt him for telling him he was sick.

Under that blanket, at the foot of that desert-born tree, that was the only safe place for the crying child. No one could see him, Apocalypse never walked that garden. Under that blanket, he could regain his composure, pretend that he didn't feel all icky inside, pretend that he hadn't thrown up in his bed.

Stryfe had no way of knowing that retreating that far into his mind left him completely unshielded, telepathically. Nor would he have cared, particularly. There was a lot of damage that needed healing, and then and only then would he emerge.

And repay Dayspring in full.

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