by Alicia McKenzie
Twelve men, just like Cable had said, all of them wearing long coats that could have been mistaken for contemporary trenchcoats from a distance. Probably the point, I reflected analytically. They would have needed to blend in, at least a little, if they'd been out in the open anywhere but here at the warehouse. The coats seemed overly tight; from the looks of it, these guys were not only wearing armor or something beneath, but SERIOUSLY packing.
Most of them looked to be in their forties. Three were considerably younger, and one of them was visibly older, in his mid-fifties at least, but he looked tougher than the rest of them put together. And that was saying a lot. This was a pretty tough-looking bunch.
The best soldiers in the Canaanite army, Cable had said. I could buy that, seeing them now.
And he was going to fight them? One after the other, all twelve of them?
This was so far beyond stupid that it made my head spin.
The one in the lead, a tall, blond man, stopped dead and glared at Cable, spitting something in what sounded like the same gutteral language Cable had used briefly, earlier.
"English, if you don't mind," Cable said, his mouth twisting slightly. He didn't seem at all fazed by the unpleasant vibes directed his way. And if I could see how the twelve of them felt about him, an alpha-level telepath sure as hell ought to be able to sense it. He was certainly making a good show of not caring, though. "For our--witnesses' sake."
One of the younger ones said something angrily--not in English--and Cable actually glared at him.
"Do you think this was my idea, boy?" he snapped irritably. "I fully intended to come alone. But you don't need to soil yourself. They won't interfere."
"I didn't think we'd settled that yet, Cable," I said, before Domino, who'd straightened, her eyes blazing at his statement, could erupt. Cable shot me a 'shut the hell up now' look that I ignored cheerfully. "I haven't seen any evidence yet that our company intends to play fair."
The young man gave me a contemptuous glance, and then looked back at Cable. "Who is this--woman, Dayspring?" he asked, almost in disgust.
I raised an eyebrow. "This woman can speak for herself, pal," I pointed out dryly.
He gave me a look that I could only described as offended--almost incredulous, as if he couldn't believe I was actually talking back to him. He opened his mouth, but Cable cut him off before he could say a word. "I'd guard your tongue," Cable said almost mildly. "'That woman' might just decide you look better without it."
I bared my teeth at the bastard, for emphasis.
The blond man in the lead totally ignored the byplay, as if it was beneath his notice. "I didn't think you'd come alone, Dayspring," he said in a cold voice. "You've never been fond of an honorable fight in the open, have you? It's not--in your nature." Cable's eyes narrowed, but the blond man continued, his tone beginning to take on a decidedly venomous edge. "You hide in the shadows, and then strike out at those who can't defend themselves--"
"Are these the required preliminaries or something?" Bridge suddenly said, his voice harsh. The blond man glanced at him dismissively, sliding off his coat to reveal sleek, sophisticated-looking green armor beneath. Green? I wondered. Weird color choice. "Insults, on top of ganging up on him?"
"Besides," Domino said, quietly but with a deadly intensity, "from what Nate's told me, I'm surprised that anyone calling himself a Canaanite has the gall to accuse someone else of killing innocent people."
Cable turned, giving them both a killing look. "Thanks for the support," he said acidly, "but would you mind staying out of this?"
Some people got downright snippy when they were under stress, I reflected. Bridge merely sighed and looked away, visibly unhappy with the whole thing, and Domino gave Cable a glare that could have frozen the core of an active volcano.
Cable ignored her, and turned back to the blond man. "Your father must be enjoying this to no end, Tamman," he said in a level voice.
They know each other. Why did that not surprise me? There'd been too much familiarity in the insults.
"Of course I know him," Cable muttered, not looking at me. "He's the son of Parridian Haight." Bridge stiffened, a stunned expression crossing his face, and I heard Domino swear under her breath. I glanced quickly over at Logan. He was frowning, but not like he knew what Cable was talking about. Which was reassuring, in a petty sort of way. "Yes, G.W.," Cable said almost wearily. "THAT Parridian Haight."
"Tribune Haight to you, murderer!" Tamman spat.
"Only Tribune, still? I thought for sure he'd have come up with a flashier title than than by now."
Tamman seemed about to retort, but then stopped himself, gathering his composure, and gave Cable a tight smile. "Well, they DO still call him the Bane of the Askani--"
"That's enough!" The barked order came from the one who looked older than the rest. Tamman turned and glared at his companion, who frowned at him disapprovingly. "I came for the rite, not for this. Despite what he's done, he is a Clan Chief, and you will remember that!"
Cable stared at the man, looking almost puzzled. "I know you," he said uncertainly.
Something flickered in the man's eyes, some contradictory mix of emotions. "Vehar of Parrens," he said, almost stiffly. "We have met, Dayspring. But I'm not surprised you don't remember me clearly, considering the circumstances."
I love coming in in the middle of the movie. Before I or anyone else could say anything, though, Tamman snapped his fingers at one of the men at the back of the group, who came forward, carrying a black case about the size and shape of a hatbox, but made of some smooth metal that had no visible seams. He set it down on the floor, and I'd be damned if the thing didn't--unfold, like a flower opening up in the sun.
Whatever color had returned to Cable's face abruptly vanished again, and he took a small, almost involuntary-looking step forward. "Wait--" he said unsteadily. I heard a gasp from Domino, who had her gun out even as I started to look towards her. Bridge, naturally, followed suit, and I heard the snikt of Logan's claws from my other side.
I didn't draw--yet, although the look on Cable's face was not particularly encouraging when it came to my assessment of how much chance we had of getting through the next two minutes without mayhem of some sort. "What the hell is that thing?" I said in as level a tone as I could manage. If we didn't keep this situation under control, it could get VERY ugly.
"It's a psionic dampener," Cable said tensely, staring at the thing as if it were a poisonous snake curled up there on the floor, waiting to lash out at him. From what I understood about his T-O virus, the metaphor wasn't entirely out of line. He looked up at Tamman Haight, a mixture of fury and--fear? on his face. "I didn't agree to this!"
"A precaution," Tamman said calmly.
"I agreed to meet you here!" Cable snarled. "I saved you from having to turn this flonqing thing into a blood hunt--"
"And we're grateful." Tamman's smile was infinitely cold. "So much more efficient this way, after all. But that certainly doesn't mean we trust you." He indicated the dampener. "Oh, I'm well aware of your techno-organic virus, Dayspring--my father briefed me fully. This is only powerful enough to interfere with any offensive use of your psionic abilities." His smile grew slightly. "It may still cause you some--discomfort, but I'm sure you'll agree it's a fair price for ensuring the rite is carried out fairly."
"Twelve to one doesn't strike me as particularly fair to begin with," Domino grated, holding her gun steady on the Canaanite nearest the dampener. It was pretty clear where her priorities were. The Canaanite stared back at her unblinkingly, not betraying even the slightest bit of edginess at the situation.
"Odd--I don't recall asking for your opinion, woman," Tamman said, not even looking at her. "Really, Dayspring. Why you constantly surround yourself with these females who don't know their place, I'll never understand--"
Domino seemed to consider his words for a moment, and then, very smoothly, changed targets. "Yeah, well," she said, and Tamman's brow creased as he realized what part of his anatomy she had in her sights. "Don't blame Nate. I just tend to be overly opinionated when I'm talking to hypocritical, misogynistic assholes like you, pal. Or maybe it's just my time of month."
"Dom." Cable had gotten himself back under control in the intervening moments. He was still white as a sheet, but his expression was utterly blankly. "Put it away," he continued in a level voice.
Her eyes flickered to him, hard as amethysts. "Nate, you can't be serious!" she hissed incredulously. "The odds are bad enough--"
"I can handle it. Put it away." He glanced sideways at Bridge. "You too, G.W."
Bridge stared at him for a moment, then reholstered his gun with more force than was absolutely neccessary. "Stupid, stubborn son of a bitch--" he grated. "If you're so determined to die, Nate, why don't you just come over here and let me shoot you in the head? Spare everyone the time and trouble--"
Cable gave a ghost of a laugh. "No, you'd enjoy that too much, G.W.--"
"I wouldn't bother, Bridge. It'd probably bounce off that thick skull of his." Logan glared at Cable, shaking his head. "Nate, on the grand scale of bad ideas, this one's up there," he growled. "Even for you."
"Shut up, Logan," Cable said, no heat, no expression at all in the words. He took a step forward, putting a hand over Domino's and forcing her to lower her gun. "Turn the flonqing thing on," he said bleakly--to Tamman, not to her. "Let's get this over with."
Cable stared at the dampener with something very close to fear, even as he kept a firm grip on Dom's wrist, so she didn't decide to shoot Tamman anyways.
Damn it, Nate, let me go! Her voice scorched down across their psi-link, and he tried not to wince. 'Loud' as she usually was from a telepathic standpoint, her anger and anxiety were just adding to the volume today. This is fucking crazy! What are you trying to prove? She tried to pull away again, but he tightened his grip, not really thinking, just reacting.
This was going to HURT.
This was how they'd blocked his powers before, when they'd had him prisoner after the end of the rebellion. Oh, it worked the way it was supposed to--it didn't inhibit his powers. Not totally, at least. But more than enough to interfere with his control over the virus rather substantially. Looks like all my carefully-laid plans just went out the window-- What he'd had in mind was going to be a lot harder under these circumstances.
But that didn't change anything. It couldn't change anything, could it? He'd looked at it from every possible perspective, last night, and had finally decided that he had only one way out of this situation. Only one honorable way--
The Canaanite beside the dampener knelt and activated it.
A cry of pain escaped him, despite his best efforts, and Domino was suddenly no longer trying to pull away, but to hold him upright. "Nate!" she said urgently. He was dimly aware of G.W. stepping forward and supporting him on the other side. "Nate, pull it together, come on--"
Bridge swore, and Cable sensed, rather than saw him going for his gun again. "You call this fair?" he heard G.W. demand angrily. "Shut the fucking thing off, or I will!"
"N-no! I'm--fine," Cable gritted, focusing as hard as he could until the virus, startled into a gleeful advance by the sudden disruption of his powers, halted. No chance of pushing it back to the normal limits of its incursion, he realized; not until all of this was over and the dampener was off. He pulled away from Domino and G.W. and straightened, forcing himself to breathe more slowly. "No--big deal, if they feel like they need--to stack the deck."
"No big deal? Nate, look at yourself for a minute, will you?" G.W. demanded.
Actually, he'd been avoiding that, but G.W. was projecting an odd sort of indignant/protective/worried forcefulness that Cable hadn't felt from him since their very early years as partners, and he found himself complying, almost involuntarily. He sized up the state of his left arm as dispassionately as he could. Worse than when I interfaced with Nimrod--not nearly as bad as it could have been, though. Certainly had nicely shredded his body armor on that side, though. He flexed his left hand tentatively, relieved that it still seemed to be working all right.
"I'm fine," he repeated, putting as much conviction as he could into his voice. He could handle this. He hadn't expected it, true, but he was perfectly capable of coping.
Domino stared up at him. If he'd been any less set on this course of action, if there'd been even the tiniest crack in his resolve, the look in those wide, strained violet eyes would have undone him completely. He could feel her trying to reach him through their psi-link, almost hear her, as if she were standing at the other end of a long, long tunnel, desperately calling to him even as the tunnel swallowed the sound of her voice and left nothing but echoes.
"Nate," she finally said aloud. "Nate, you don't have to do this."
"I do," he rasped. "Not just for me." He forced himself to look away. "For her," he whispered, and stepped forward again, shalmatar at the ready, before Dom could ask him for an explanation he couldn't give. "Like I said," he grated, staring at Tamman. "Let's get this over with."
Looking back on it afterwards, I'm not sure what I was expecting. Everything that had led up to this had left me with a bad taste in my mouth, to say the least. Whatever sympathy I might have felt for these Canaanites had been resoundingly banished by that nasty trick with the psionic dampener--as if twelve against one wasn't bad enough, damn it!--and part of me still thought Cable was wallowing rather unnecessarily in this little guilt-trip of his.
And when the youngest-looking of our 'twelve angry men' stepped forward, taking off his coat to reveal green armor identical to Tamman's and pulling out a pair of very nasty-looking axe-like things, I looked from him to a still-shaky Cable and started to worry.
I shouldn't have bothered. Worrying, that was. At least, not yet.
The Canaanite was good. Fast, agile, and obviously totally committed to doing as much damage as possible. But Cable blocked every one of his attacks easily, almost effortlessly. I'd wondered what kind of a fighting style he'd used with that shal--whatever he'd called it. It was almost like a dance; more complicated than I would have thought, as much about speed and grace as it was about power.
I noticed something else about it too, and I wasn't the only one.
"He's falling all over himself trying not to kill the guy," Logan muttered from just behind me.
"Yeah," I said, biting my lip. But I think I was beginning to understand, even though I didn't know the rules of this game. *Damned men and their damned overactive senses of honor--*
Cable was totally on the defensive. Blocking each move the Canaanite made, but not taking any of the opportunities the younger man gave him to press the attack. Holding back. Against a man fully determined to kill him.
I swore under my breath. "You stupid son of a bitch," I muttered. It might work with this guy, maybe with two or three more, but sooner or later, they'd wear him down. And none of them would have any compunctions about taking the opening for a killing blow. "Damn you, Summers," I hissed, seeing Domino out of the corner of my eye, standing there like a statue, only her eyes moving as she followed the duel.
"Kai," Logan murmured. "This is the only choice he had, darlin'."
"Bullshit!" I snapped, under my breath, and then nearly gasped as Cable suddenly erupted forward, bringing his 'pike' around in a wide arc--at the last moment, turning the blade so that the flat of it caught the Canaanite on the side of the head, knocking him sprawling.
The man was still breathing--I could see that much from here--but he wasn't going to be moving anytime soon, let alone fighting. Cable, looking only slightly winded, straightened and gave Tamman a level look.
"Not a bad warm-up," he growled. "Next?"
One after the other, each of them stepped up to face him. They seemed to have decidedly individual tastes in weapons. Bigger versions of the hand-axes, swords, things I couldn't even begin to put a name to--even, in one case, something that looked like a damned trident. Different weapons, different fighting styles--and they were all so good, damn it! Tamman seemed to be sending them forward based on some kind of rising scale of skill.
The second made the first look like an amateur. The third made the second look like he had two left feet. And so on.
Cable stuck to his strategy, though, fighting on the defensive and only pressing the attack when he had the chance to take them down without inflicting real damage. Sticking to his guns, to this stupid, idiotic plan of his--fighting with such care, such precision, that he didn't shed a single drop of blood.
Too bad the same wasn't true of them. By the time he'd gotten to duel number four, Cable was bleeding from half a dozen minor but messy wounds from where they'd gotten past his guard. Each time, Domino shuddered in reaction, flinching as if she'd taken the hit herself. Bridge soon stepped up behind her, laying his hands on her shoulders, for support and comfort both, it seemed to me. She didn't even notice.
Cable was much better than any of the Canaanites who'd fought him so far. They were good; he was brilliant. There was a sort of artistry about this that I might have been in the mood to appreciate, under better circumstances. It was a lot harder not to kill in this sort of fight.
I wondered if the Canaanites realized that, or appreciated it, if they did. Something made me doubt it.
Five. This one got the butt of Cable's pike in the gut, and went down, groaning. He tried to get up, and Cable, lowering his pike, flattened him with a fist to the jaw.
Six. This one was carrying twin swords, and was almost blindingly quick with them, but he too ended up on the floor of the warehouse. This time, though, Cable backed away, one hand clenched to his side. Even from where I stood, in the growing dimness, I could see blood seeping around his fingers.
I winced as the ninth Canaanite went down with a howl of pain, his leg broken by a very well-placed sweep from Cable's pike. That HAD to hurt--
Cable pulled himself back up to his feet, wavering slightly as he leveled the tip of his pike at the man's throat, spitting something in the Canaanite's own gutteral language. The man glared at him for a moment in utter loathing, and then nodded. Cable lowered his weapon, a look of relief flashing across his face. He wiped sweat from his forehead and started to step back--only to slide to the floor again, as if his legs had suddenly refused to hold him.
Logan was only a step behind me, but we weren't nearly as fast as Bridge and Domino in getting to him. "Nate, you all right?" Logan asked gruffly.
"Fine," Cable gasped, breathing raggedly. "Just fine. How many was that--eight?"
"Nine," Bridge said with a snort that didn't quite cover his worry. "What, you losing count?" He gripped Cable's shoulder tightly. "Look," he said in a low, urgent voice. "Whatever you think you needed to prove, I'd say you proved it."
"You--don't know ANYTHING!" Cable hissed, wrenching away from him. I watched, caught between horror and fascination as techno-organic tendrils started to creep upwards from his neck, across the side of his face. He closed his eyes for a moment, the muscles along his jaw ripplying, and the virus started to retreat again. "It's not finished yet," he muttered, his voice breaking, and struggled back to his feet.
Domino caught his arm as he started forward. "You didn't give the order, did you?" she asked in a soft voice. "It wasn't you. It was--"
He pulled away from her, his eyes blazing in his pallid face. His expression was strangely stricken. "It was my idea!" he snapped at her, and turned to face the last three Canaanites still standing.
One was Tamman. I suspected he was saving himself for last--*wanting the killing blow,* part of me acknowledged grimly. The other was the older man who'd identified himself as Vehar of Parrens and put an end to the posturing earlier.
The third, the last of the younger Canaanites, was also, to put it baldly, the biggest. He was a good head taller than Bridge and Cable, and built like your average tree.
He also, as I watched him take off his coat, appeared to have a pike identical to Cable's strapped across his back. He was big enough that the blade didn't show over his shoulder, and the staff itself had been mostly hidden by the coat. He pulled it free, smiling at Cable's obvious surprise.
"Trophy," he said, in heavily-accented English.
Cable's left eye glowed balefully, and for the first time today, I saw real anger from him, directed at one of his opponents. "Well," he rasped, "let's see if you know how to use it, then, shall we?"
And he lunged forward, moving faster than he had before, attacking rather than just defending. Taken off guard, the Canaanite nevertheless recovered quickly.
"So honor has gone by the wayside already, Dayspring?" he asked, blocking an overhand blow from Cable with the staff of his pike. "I was wondering how long it would take--"
"It went by the wayside as soon as I saw you with that," Cable snarled, backing off a step and gesturing at the Canaanite's weapon.
"This?" The Canaanite gave him a savage smile. "I took it off a corpse at Anikia."
A cry of pure rage burst from Cable, and he went after the Canaanite with renewed fury, spitting something in his own language, profanities by his tone. Some part of me noted inconsequentially that Cable's language made even cursing sounding weirdly musical.
He was fighting out of anger, now; I could see that much, even if I didn't know why. Throwing caution to the wind--burning up whatever energy he had left--in the process, leaving openings that fairly screamed 'come on, kill me!'
This wasn't good.
To make it worse, the Canaanite clearly knew what he was doing with his pike. His patterns were rougher, less fluid than Cable's, but the strength behind them more than made up for it. Whatever advantage Cable had gotten in taking the offensive right off the bat, he was quickly losing it. This had just been going on too long. The Canaanite was fresh; Cable was injured, and wearing down fast.
"What the hell is Anikia?" I hissed over my shoulder at Logan. "Am I missing something? Looks to me like he just tossed his original plan out the window."
Domino, keeping one eye on Cable, came over. She was moving like she was in a trance, her expression strangely dazed. "Logan," she said. "Something's wrong--"
"When he said he took the weapon off a corpse," Domino continued, cutting him off before he could say more than the one word. She was staring fixedly at Cable. "Nate just--snapped. Something about what he said just--" She gasped, reaching out a hand as if to call a stop to the proceedings.
I turned just in time to see the Canaanite get past Cable's guard, and with one, perfectly-timed cut, slash Cable's right leg open from hip to knee. As Cable crumpled to the ground, I instinctively started forward, barely aware of Logan and Domino--and a few steps away, Bridge--doing the same. All I could see was the Canaanite raising his pike for the killing blow--
And then stumbling backwards, mouth wide open in shock as he stared down at the pike buried in his chest. "Y-you--" he stammered. "I--didn't think you would--"
Cable, absolutely ashen, wrenched his pike free, staring up at the Canaanite in shock as the man slowly fell. He'd brought his pike around so fast, all I'd seen was a blur.
Even Tamman looked stunned. Vehar, I noticed, was nodding slowly to himself, as if something had just been confirmed to him.
Instinct. It couldn't have been anything else. I mean, you see a staff with a foot-long, razor-sharp blade coming at you, instinct invariably takes over. It's a gut reaction, self-preservation, nothing more. It doesn't care about strategy, or honor. It took a conscious, solid-as-stone determination to override it. Sacrifice wasn't a natural part of human nature.
It occurred to me, then, that no matter how shocked he looked at what he'd done, Cable couldn't really want to die here. If he had, he'd have been just a little slower, and the matter would have taken care of itself.
It also occurred to me that part of the reason he might look like he'd just seen his own ghost was because he was bleeding all over the floor.
Logan broke from that moment of paralysis first. Before Domino or Bridge or I had even shaken off the shock, he was kneeling beside Cable, who was staring at the body of the Canaanite he'd killed as if there was nothing else in the world.
"Snap out of it, bub," Logan growled, scowling as he got a closer look at Cable's leg. "Damn it, Nate, you're bleeding like a stuck pig! What were you doing, daydreaming?" Cable regarded him blankly for a moment, and Logan cursed under his breath. He glanced at the rest of us, measuringly, his gaze settling on Domino. "Neena, I need your jacket."
Domino, who'd been staring at the Canaanite's body with an expression so similar to Cable's that it was downright creepy, shook herself and hurried over, sliding off her jacket and handing it to Logan. "You're damned lucky that missed the artery, you idiot," she said tensely to Cable, crouching down to support him from behind.
Keeping one eye on Tamman and Vehar, I edged closer to see for myself. Bridge had them covered, his hand resting oh-so-casually on his gun, but I didn't want to take my attention off them entirely, not when Logan and Domino were both busy with Cable.
She was right--as bad as it was, it had clearly missed the artery. He was still losing a lot of blood, though, and I didn't like to think about what kind of damage a gash that long and that deep had probably done to the muscles in his leg. Cable might be as tough a customer as they came, but he didn't have a healing factor.
Logan continued to snarl curses under his breath as he made a makeshift pressure bandage out of Domino's coat. "You still determined to finish this?" he demanded.
Cable finally seemed to break out of his daze. "What do you think?" he growled through gritted teeth. He paled even further as Logan tightened the bandage. "Only two left," he continued, more unsteadily. "I can do this--"
"Bullshit," Domino hissed, her hands tightening on his shoulders, almost claw-like. "I swear to God, Summers, once this is all over I AM going to kill you--"
"Let it drop, Neena," Logan growled, giving her a strangely significant look as he finished bandaging Cable's leg. "Now ain't the time."
"Says you, old man," she snapped in a low voice, in a sort of desperate attempt at banter.
"Would the two of you please stop arguing and give me a hand up?" Cable muttered, and tried to get to his feet. But a gasp of pain escaped him as soon as he tried to put weight on his leg, and he slumped back to the ground, white as a sheet. "Oath!"
"Giving up already, Dayspring?" Tamman called, his voice almost laconic.
Logan's head whipped around. "You, bub, can just back the hell off for a minute!" he snarled. "Before I act on this urge I've got to see what your insides look like!"
"If he can't continue, he can't continue," Tamman said, affecting a yawn. His apparent indifference didn't fool me--his eyes were as sharp as a hawk's as he regarded Cable, something distinctly bloodthirsty glimmering in their depths. "The rite prescribes a very specific response in such cases--"
"Fuck your rite," I snapped, infuriated by what he was suggesting. "Considering that most of your group's out cold or otherwise incapacitated, pal, it looks to me like we outnumber you. And if you think we're just going to stand by and let you kill him or something because he broke your precious fucking rules--"
"That's not what he's saying, Kai," Cable grated, hauling himself to his feet, using his pike as support. Neither Domino nor Logan gave him any help--a test, I realized suddenly as I saw the way they were watching him. Something told me that this whole thing would have been over, whether Cable liked it or not, if he hadn't been able to get up on his own. "But you forgot one very important thing, Tamman," Cable continued, glaring at him in disgust. He was leaning rather heavily on his pike, and putting almost no weight at all on his leg, but his stance still said 'ready to fight'. "I'm not a Canaanite. I may be playing by your rules out of respect, but that only goes so far."
Tamman's lip curled. "Just what I'd expect from you."
"Yeah, well, shove it, boy," Cable said coldly. "There's only one situation where I'd consider suicide as a viable option, and this isn't it." With what looked like a sheer act of will, he straightened, bringing his pike around into position again. "Now, are we going to finish this or are you going to make me come over there after you?"
It was pure bravado, I knew. He looked like he was about to fall flat on his face, and I doubted that this was one of those happy cases where appearances were deceiving.
"Oh, I get it," I said angrily. "You were supposed to 'fall on your sword', right? Oh, that's cute. You guys did say you were from two thousand years in the FUTURE, right? This is just--"
"Yes, let's finish it, Dayspring," Tamman gritted. "I grow tired of listening to your women mewl at me--"
"Bite me, asshole!"
"Enough, please," Vehar said, softly. For some reason, I found myself closing my mouth. Weird, considering I had all kinds of things I wanted to say to Tamman, but there was just something in Vehar's voice that drove all of that right out of my head. Something very far from the anger I'd seen from the other Canaanites--
Something very close to sadness. That was a first, I thought suddenly. All the rest seemed to be far more interested in revenge. Why is that? I thought, staring consideringly at Vehar as he started to take his coat off. What makes you different?
He pulled off his coat, and I had at least one answer--even if it probably wasn't the one I was looking for. Still, it was a difference.
His armor was red. Red, not green.
Cable stared at Vehar. All he could see was the red armor, the combat decorations. So familiar, all of it. Red-armored figures had haunted his nightmares for years without respite.
"You're Elite Guard," he whispered, unconsciously slipping back into the 'trade-tongue' that had been common in their era.
Vehar nodded slowly. "Yes," he said, still strangely subdued. "And we have met, Dayspring, as I said." He gestured at the body of the Canaanite Cable had just killed. "Young Darvahn there was not the only one of our group who fought in Stryfe's army at Anikia."
"But you weren't just at Anikia, were you?" Cable rasped, unthinking shifting his weight, and nearly biting through his lower lip as a flash of white-hot pain shot up his injured leg. Shadows stirred in his mind, fragments of memory hemmed around by darkness and pain and despair.
And Vehar's face WAS there. He couldn't understand why he hadn't remembered before.
"You didn't just fight at Anikia," he repeated, his voice even more rough than it had been. "You served Stryfe--afterwards."
Vehar nodded again, and drew two slender, curved swords. Cable felt something twist inside him.
After his Clan, betrayed and abandoned by their allies, had been defeated at Anikia, handed a crushing defeat in a battle they should have won.
AFTER that--when Stryfe and the Elite Guard had marched north through the territories that had sworn allegiance to the Clan. Marched north, through the Protectorate.
And depopulated it.
"You have--incredible gall," Cable said, straining to get each word out past a growing red rage that threatened to swallow up what was left of his reason. "I don't care if you lost every person related to you by blood in that bunker, Canaanite. What you and your kind took part in--" His voice broke as images drifted past his mind's eyes. Dayspring, save us! He still heard their screams, in his sleep. "What you did--you gave up ANY right you have to this!"
Vehar's smile was oddly wry. "Any rights I have, yes. You, on the other hand--"
Realization hit him like a splash of cold water in the face.
He didn't come to kill me. He came so that I'd kill him.
Absurdly, he found himself struggling to hold back laughter. "Waited a little too long, I think," he said, leaning heavily on his shalmatar again. Vehar didn't seem at all bothered by the black amusement that colored his tone despite his best efforts. "You should have gone first." The idea of being the--instrument of some bizarre sort of redemption for one of those responsible for the deaths of millions of people, people he'd sworn to protect--no. He wouldn't. Let the man work out his guilt the hard way, if he felt he had to.
The hard way--like the rest of them.
"Perhaps, but I had to be sure," Vehar said, almost formally.
"Sure?" He could feel blood soaking through Logan's makeshift bandage. Running out of time, he thought absently. He had to finish this, one way or another, and finish it soon. Who are you kidding? his conscience asked him sardonically. You ARE finished, Nate. The instant you move, this leg's going to collapse underneath you, and THEN it'll be over. Not the way you planned, either-- "Sure of what?"
"Of you, Dayspring." Vehar's smile was curiously friendly. He gestured at Cable's leg with one sword. "Of what you would do--how you would react. Whether you'd meet the rite with honor." He shrugged. "I needed to know."
Cable felt a twisted smile growing on his features. "I trust I satisfied your expectations," he said bitterly.
"Oh, yes," Vehar said enigmatically, his gaze distant for a moment before it sharpened again. "We both know I could kill you," he said, more briskly.
Most likely true, but his pride required a certain type of response. Switching back to the Canaanite's own language, he suggested an anatomically impossible act, and Vehar gave a brief laugh.
"I could, but I won't. A life for a life, for a life--" The Canaanite's eyes looked suspiciously bright. "I'm tired, Dayspring. Tired of living every day with what I should have done--I think it's time to close this circle now." With one quick motion, he reversed one of his swords.
"No!" Tamman suddenly shouted, lunging forward.
Cable reeled backwards as Vehar fell on his own blade, the Canaanite's sense of relief, of freedom so powerful that it cut through the dampening field and slammed into his awareness with the strength of a physical blow. For a moment, he experienced all of the man's regrets, all the fear and guilt and horror and doubt that had haunted the life of Vehar of Parrens since the Purges. Encapsulated in a heartbeat, as the older Canaanite crumpled into Tamman's arms, and breathed his last.
Holding onto his shalmatar, Cable forced his tired, aching body to straighten, trying to the traitorous sorrow he couldn't quite shut out. He was Elite Guard, part of him pointed out disgustedly. He probably had the blood of countless innocent people--your people!--on his hands!
And was he himself any better? What had happened in that bunker, what he had done here and in other times--his hands were far from clean. But he'd fought to live, here. Killed, to save himself. Why? For his 'mission'? Or was it just because he lacked the courage to face up to what he'd done and take the consequences--lacked the courage to judge himself and find himself wanting, as Vehar had?
Tamman looked up at him, unashamed tears on his face. "He was my teacher!" he spat, flushed with rage.
The teacher-student bond was as important to military-caste Canaanites as it had been to the Askani, Cable knew. "It was his choice." It came out colder than he'd meant it to, and the very lack of emotion in his words seemed to drive Tamman over the edge.
"You manipulated him!" Tamman accused him wildly. Cable felt very old as he realized how much this man, the son of a ruthless, heartless dictator, had cared for his teacher. It would be so much easier to be able to de-humanize them-- The thought drifted through his mind almost laconically, but was driven away by Tamman's next words. "With your telepathy--you had to have done something to his mind, he NEVER would have done this!"
"Haight, you have a flonqing dampener on, remember? It was his choice--"
"LIAR!" Cable barely managed to get his shalmatar up in time as Tamman exploded up off the floor and at him, one of Vehar's swords in one hand and drawing another in mid-leap. He caught both on the staff of his weapon, gritting his teeth at the impact.
"Nate!" he heard Domino shout.
"Stay out of this!" he snarled. Unorthodox beginning or not, this was still part of the blood rite. He had to--what was the phrase, sink or swim on his own?
Dayspring, you're delirious, a voice from the back of his mind said with a heavy sigh.
Everything seemed to start moving in slow motion. He parried a few more times, even as he tried to get back into the pattern. Strangely, he found himself remembering that time, so long ago, when Tetherblood had taught him this fighting style--remembering it vividly, as if it had happened just yesterday. Focus, you stupid son of a flonq, he told himself, shaking his head doggedly, trying to clear it. But his mind wanted to wander away, to abandon his body and head off to a more pleasant place--
A vicious overhand blow from Tamman nearly took his head off. Cable, half-in, half-out of the pattern, ducked. And stumbled, his bad leg giving out on him. He wound up on his knees, Tamman's blades coming at him with blinding speed--
Remember, Nate. Tetherblood's voice in his mind was cheerful. It's like my body-father always used to tell me. The best defense is a good offense.
With arms that felt like lead, Cable raised his shalmatar, brought it around in a wide, sweeping arc aimed not at Tamman, but at his weapons.
The strength of the steel is in the arm that wields it, Dayspring, Blaquesmith said severely. It helps, of course, that Askani weaponsmiths cheat, however--
Only the best ceremonial weapons for the son of the Canaanite tribune, of course. But even they couldn't stand up to a shalmatar made by the last Askani weaponsmith, just before the battle at Anikia. A shalmatar whose blade wasn't precisely--steel, in the traditional sense.
Cable reminded himself, in that moment, not to say anything to Logan. It would be something of a bitch, explaining where the adamantium had come from.
Tamman's swords both shattered, and he lost his balance at the impact, falling to his hands and knees. Cable, with a groan, twisted around, ignoring the screaming agony in his leg as he let the momentum carry him along with it, bring him back up to his feet.
Somehow, by an act of sheer will, he managed to stop himself just before he took Tamman's head off.
"Y-yield," he grated in the Canaanite battle language, trembling with the strain of putting most of his weight on his injured leg.
Tamman's blue eyes gleamed with fury. "To you? I'd sooner die."
"Stab your eyes, I don't want to kill you!" Cable cried. I think it's time to close this circle now, Vehar's voice echoed in his mind. "When is it enough, Haight?" he snarled almost feverishly. "When does it end? If I followed the blood rite for everyone I lost to your people, I'd be doing nothing but chasing vengeance for the rest of my life!" He lowered his shalmatar, and hobbled backwards, biting back a gasp of pain. "I won't do it. Whether you yield or not, I'm sparing your life. You can decide if you're going to follow your own flonqing code and respect that, Tamman, but this is over!"
Blindly, shaking violently, the support of his shalmatar the only thing keeping him upright, he turned, and started to limp exhaustedly back to Domino and the others. Not thinking about anything else but getting out of here, away from the dampener and from the memories--
So, it was at that moment, of course, that Tamman chose to pull a knife and stab him in the back.
Pain lanced upwards through his chest, and before he knew what was happening, he was falling, His shalmatar clattered to the ground, out of reach. Fighting for breath, he started to turn his head, just in time to see Tamman rising from his knees, blood-covered knife in one hand and a look that was far from sane in his eyes.
A knife came sliding across the floor towards him. He caught it, and drove it into Tamman's chest as the Canaanite came at him, until the blade caught on bone and went no further.
Tamman, eyes wide, snarled one last curse and fell. Cable watched, feeling curiously detached. Blood on my hands again, he thought dazedly, as he felt himself sinking back to the floor.
There was suddenly someone holding him, familiar arms propping him up so that he could breathe. Familiar voices, sounding very agitated.
"--damn the son of a bitch!"
"Bridge! Shoot that fucking dampener already--"
"--shit, I think the knife nicked his lung--"
"So much for honor--"
"Nate? Nate, stay with us, come on--"
Since it was Dom asking him, he tried. He really did. But everything was going dark, and he was so tired--
His last thought was that Kai had really been a good sport about this whole thing, to have forgiven him for what he'd done in the safehouse. She must have.
Otherwise, she never would have thrown him the knife.
to be concluded...
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