This is the second story in the Times' Change trilogy, which started with "A Second More". In ASM, available at http://greymalkin.s5.com/second_more1.htm, an injured Prince Stryfe is taken away from the palace by Redd and Slym Dayspring after they defeated Apocalypse and raised as their son, Sean. Now with their parents gone, Nathan and Sean are left to survive in the middle of a world at war. They can either be swept away or learn to control the current...
I'd like to thank Persephone Kore, Mitai, and Timesprite for all their valuable help in beta reading and just general encouragement. I couldn't have done it without you! *hugs* Feedback is worshipped and adored at email@example.com.
Some people see life in colors--peaceful times swathed in blue, happiness in yellow or green, conflict in red. Others measure things by sound--joyful pealing of bells, the harsh crash of cymbals, the mournful wailing of a flute. Nathan Dayspring had always seen things in terms of light. His memories of Redd and Slym were always cast in a warm golden glow. Battles were invariably shot through with red light from Slym's optic blasts. The best times with his twin were cast in the flickering orange light of a campfire.
When he looked back at this day, it would always be with the harsh yellow glare of the sun beating down on the battlefield, shot through with brighter flashes of the energy weapons being fired at friend and foe alike.
Nate's first major battle had come at the age of nine, when he'd snuck along with Redd, Slym, and the Clan Rebellion to blow up one of Apocalypse's research facilities. Since then, he'd fought in any number of battles, from the grandest of all--destroying the High Lord Apocalypse at the age of thirteen--to the meanest struggle to survive when on the run. Most of those fights had come through fighting with his brother's army to unify all the scattered generals trying to carve their own empire after Apocalypse's fall. But Nate still had a sense, as he struck yet another soldier down, that somehow this battle was something unusual.
As the battle wore on, Nate fell into a sort of trance, senses wildly alert for the slightest movement that could mean danger, yet at the same time trapped in a sort of tunnel vision. There was nothing but him and the next soldier to challenge him. No past, no future, just battle. Spin to avoid an enemy weapon. Come up firing. Ignore the start of surprise in the dying man's eyes. Again. And again. When too many rush you at once, lash out with t-k until you feel the bones start to pop and snap under the pressure. Don't get distracted by screams, whether from the enemy or your own men. Don't let your mental shields slip and be overwhelmed by the dying. Stay alive. Stay sane.
As Nate thrust a blade through someone's throat and watched eyes glaze over in death, he wondered mirthlessly how likely the latter was for anyone here.
But the battle was going well. Even though Nate had gotten separated from his twin early on, leading a charge into a knot of troops protecting one of Granthe's major commanders, Stryfe's presence still sang in his mind with fierce elation of a coming victory. Nate spared a quick thought to the possible victory, but didn't dare take his attention off the deadly dance he was engaged in. An injury received during "mop up" would kill him just as dead as one taken in the heat of battle.
Shouts and cheers finally penetrated Nate's consciousness just as an impersonal voice in his head reported, #Stand down and prepare to receive surrenders.#
Nate mentally pegged the voice as Mihye, a colorless older woman without any skills to speak of who would have been a quick casualty in the civil wars, if not for her moderate gift of telepathy, which allowed her to reach any unshielded mind within several miles' radius. Not very useful in combat, but she did quite well in the ranks of low- and mid-level telepaths Stryfe's army found invaluable in communications.
Nate allowed himself to droop for a moment in relief and exhaustion, then snapped to attention and started gathering up the nearby soldiers. Although he had no official title, as Lord Stryfe's brother he could and did command when the time called for it. The battle may be over, but there was still much to be done--the injured to see to, prisoners to deal with, dead to bury. With a quiet sigh, Nathan turned to his duty.
"A good battle, young Dayspring," a deep voice rumbled over Nate's shoulder. Purposely not showing any surprise, he turned and lifted his gaze to the speaker.
"I'm not sure if any battle can be called 'good', Ch'vayre, but it was successful."
"Isn't the best indication of a good battle that it was a successful one?"
Nate smiled slightly. "Perhaps." He regarded the imposing bulk of the former Prelate and wondered what had caused the other man to seek him out. After spending his childhood thinking of Ch'vayre as one of the greatest monsters in the High Lord's Court (and two years of Sean's less-than-flattering stories), Nate was even more uncomfortable with him than Stryfe was. Of course, Stryfe had twelve years of princely arrogance to fall back on, while Nate just had a childhood of hiding from people like Ch'vayre to make him leery.
But to his surprise, the ex-rebel and former noble worked well enough together when circumstances required. Ch'vayre refused to call any peasant, even the Prince's brother, "lord". Nate refused to defer to any man who'd come seeking his unit's help to destroy Apocalypse as his superior officer. Both respected each other's opinions enough to take suggestions. Neither treated the other as more than grudgingly-tolerated colleagues. Within those limitations, they got along very well.
"General Granthe has officially surrendered," Ch'vayre observed as he looked over the line of prisoners Nate's group had brought in. "I believe Lord Stryfe plans on offering him a command, if he will swear fealty."
"Good. Granthe's a decent man, and a good commander. This wasn't an easy win."
Ch'vayre laughed, making the hair on Nate's neck stand on end. "Indeed not. You were far from the main battle, I believe. If not for their losses in the canyon, I doubt they would have surrendered so quickly."
Nate knew better by now than to admit to ignorance in front of officers in the army, even ones he had a cordial relationship with. Especially not when it was so specifically mentioned. So she simply made a non-commercial reply and turned the conversation elsewhere. But as soon as he'd finished discharging his prisoners to the appropriate officer, he excused himself and began a circuitous route across the battlefield. There was only one canyon Ch'vayre could have been referring to, though Nate recalled they had planned to try to steer the battle *away* from there. It would be a dangerous place to get caught in during a firefight. Still, plans were always fluid, and Stryfe had apparently found a way to make the terrain work for him.
Nate was smiling and planning how to tease Sean before congratulating him on yet another victory when he reached the crest of the hill looking over the small canyon--and felt his heart stutter at the sight spread out in front of him.
The clean-up detail had clearly not made it this far yet, making sure the wounded made it to the healers and the dead and dying were disposed of, so the stench emanating from the canyon was nearly overpowering. Bodies were spread thickly across the canyon floor, without room to even step between them in most places. Blood was everywhere Nate's horrified eyes looked, congealing in great pools beneath the piles of bodies, splattered across the canyon walls. Everywhere he looked, every body he saw--all dead. Not a single survivor. Nate was barely able to concentrate on the scene long enough to spot the dark green bandoliers decorating the corpses, the distinctive identifier worn by Granthe's troops.
Not theirs, Nate told himself firmly as he whirled away from the nauseating sight, fighting down the bile. Not theirs, and that was something. With this kind of loss of life, it was no wonder Granthe surrendered. Nate tried to be grateful that it wasn't *their* troops lying there... but he couldn't get those blank, staring eyes and empty hands grasping at the sky out of his mind...
When Stryfe finally returned to his tent, the lanterns had been burning for hours and the camp sang with soldiers celebrating one more victory over death. The prince entered the familiar tent, surprised to find it already lit and occupied. "So this is where you disappeared to. Vande swore you were off on a, ah, private celebration somewhere," he said with an arch grin.
"So I am. Your tent's more comfortable than mine. And better stocked." Nate tossed a bottle at his brother. Stryfe caught it, shook it to find it full, and grinned appreciatively. "Congratulations, little brother. Another victory."
"It seems endless sometimes, doesn't it?" Stryfe asked as he threw himself down on the ground, softened with plush rugs taken as tributes from some local nobles. The richly-decorated tent was a far cry from the dirty hovel where young brothers first became friends, but the warmth of feeling was there just the same.
Nate caught the bottle as Stryfe tossed it back at him and swallowed a mouthful. "That it does. What's the word on Granthe?"
Stryfe made a face and reclaimed the bottle for another swig. "He's being executed tomorrow. I scanned him; no point in swearing fealty, he'd just ignore it. I could slave-link him, but he's more valuable as an example. His lieutenant's already sworn allegiance. We should get most of his other commanders as well."
Nate sighed and leaned his head back to stare at the cloth ceiling. "I wish he'd flonqing well listened to reason *before* this!"
"So do I," Stryfe said quietly, taking another long sip before tossing the bottle back at Nate.
For a long time, the brothers shared their drinks in silence, the only noise in the tent the faint sounds of celebration that penetrated the think walls. Finally Stryfe propped himself up and began prying off his boots and armor, tossing everything in the vague direction of the armor stand in the corner. Nate just lounged on Stryfe's cot, happily claiming sole ownership of the bottle for now. He didn't say anything until Stryfe turned on his side to yank his cape out from under him and sent it sailing towards the wall.
Nate sat straight up, swore, and summoned the cape to him with t-k to examine it. He poked incredulously at the gaping hole with black, scorched edges. "Oath, Sean!"
"I blocked it," Stryfe protested defensively, frowning at the hole. "I didn't realize it was that big. I liked that cape."
"I like *you* intact more than the cape! That was a little *too* close."
"Some sharpshooter in that group we trapped in the canyon," Stryfe dismissed with a wave. His face brightened. "Oath, wasn't that a sight to see? I wish you'd been there!"
"What *did* happen there? I never heard. I just saw--the bodies." Nate rubbed his hand against his leg in revulsion.
"Zain's troops trapped them there. He's getting a promotion tomorrow." Stryfe's voice rang with excitement. "I didn't think we'd manage to trap so many at once, even when we saw the opportunity. *Half* that many would have been enough to give Granthe pause."
Nate looked away, his face troubled. "I never liked Zain," he mumbled, then looked back at his twin. "They wouldn't surrender even after they were trapped?" He shuddered. "The ones I came across seemed... a lot more reasonable than that."
"Oh, they probably would have."
Nate's head shot up. He fixed Stryfe with an incredulous stare and said, "*What*?"
"They probably would have, but we Granthe needed to know we were serious."
"Sean, they were trapped and surrounded! Zain didn't even give them a *chance* to surrender? And you're PROMOTING him for it?!"
"I'm promoting him for *capturing* an entire regiment of Granthe's best troops and giving us the opening we needed to force the surrender," Stryfe replied tightly.
"And to give you that opening he *slaughtered* all those men! Didn't you SEE it? It was horrible!"
"It was necessary!" Stryfe snapped.
"*Necessary*?! Zain should be--"
"Zain didn't order it. I did. If you're going to be flinging accusations around, Nathan, then do it properly."
Nate recoiled slightly in utter shock, staring at his brother with eyes wide and mouth hanging open. It was a long moment before he could manage to speak, in a harsh whisper. "*You* did that? Without even giving them a *chance*?"
"I saw the opportunity, so I ordered the troops to open fire," Stryfe said implacably, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "It gave us the opportunity we needed to force Granthe's surrender, or we might *still* be out there. Oath, do you think I *liked* doing that? But I can't afford your idealism, Nate!"
"It's not being idealistic. It's being *human*!" Nate snapped. "Think about what Redd and Slym would say if they'd seen you today!"
"Where do you think I got the idea from?" Stryfe hissed in a low voice, his left eye flaring brightly. "You stayed at home, Nathan, remember? You didn't even know what Slym *was*. In the battle at Leilar, he trapped MY soldiers in a gorge and opened fire. He killed more people in that one battle than I did in TEN! He was *STRONG* and he did what he needed to!"
"Slym wasn't like that," Nate insisted, his voice shaking.
"You didn't know him like I did. If he'd been commanding today, he would have done the same thing!"
Nate stared at his brother for a long moment, not trusting his voice. Finally he managed, "Slym wouldn't have been proud of it," then stalked past Stryfe and out of the tent. He paused once at the doorway, looked back, then swept out without another word.
Stryfe was left standing in the middle of his empty tent, clutching a ruined cape, wondering why victory tasted so much like ashes.