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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was completely silent.
Nate had used that phrase before, but even silence had never been so... well, silent. There were always some sort of light, faint sounds, enough to reassure a man that he wasn't completely alone. The faint sounds of breathing. The light, shuffling noises of a body readjusting its seat or simply moving restlessly. For a telepath, even with the best shields there was always a faintly whispering *presence* that told him other minds were out there and alive.
But as Nathan Dayspring stood in the center of the completely silent village, it was easy for him to believe he was the last man alive.
That was foolish, of course. All he had to do was walk a few hundred feet to the outskirts of the village where he'd left his escort and he would be surrounded by moving, breathing, thinking, *alive* soldiers. But he kept walking into the silent village instead of back towards the living squadron, drawn by some unwitting fascination he couldn't even explain.
When they'd first come up to the village and seen a man sprawled face-down on the road, they'd thought he was the victim of an attack or maybe just bad luck. Then Nate noticed the entire town seemed far too quiet. His first thought had been that the entire village had fallen victim to some sort of plague. He'd left the rest of the squad behind and gone to investigate, trusting in the odd immunity the T-O seemed to give him to most *other* diseases to keep him safe.
If it was a plague, it was an extraordinarily fast-acting one. The entire village seemed to have been struck down within mere heartbeats of each other. No one had managed to panic and try running away or doing *anything* to stop their coming doom. Instead, people had been struck down wherever they stood.
A mother collapsed beside a crib, her baby's blanket still clutched in her fingers while the infant slept on forever.
A portly man in a nightshirt lay on his kitchen floor, his midnight snack scattered around beside him, rotting where it fell.
A young couple locked eternally in passionate embrace.
Men slumped over tables in the tavern, mugs of whatever the favored local brew was sitting at their elbows, a barmaid lying in a pool of spilled drinks at their feet.
Whatever this disease was, it had struck down old and young alike, the healthy and the infirm, the strong and the weak. The town guard slumped over his post suffered the same fate as the frail old woman in her bed.
Nate knelt shakily beside two small bodies, sprawled at the base of a strong old tree that grew behind a particularly fine house. Two young boys--brothers, or just friends? Nate could see them so clearly in his mind's eye, sneaking out of the house and meeting at the base of the tree, their childish voices hushed in excitement as they planned to scale its heights to the mysteries concealed in its branches instead of lying restlessly in bed...
Until they'd been struck down in a heartbeat, slack fingers no longer able to grip the rough trunk, falling without even a scream...
Nate let out a long breath and reached out to gently close the boys' staring eyes. Then he shook himself and reminded himself to get down to business. A plague like this would be a disaster if it spread to Stryfe's army--if it spread *anywhere*! So, find out the cause. He settled himself comfortably on the ground and extended his senses to the small bodies beside him, refusing to let himself think of them as anything but evidence.
Years of battling the T-O had given him an innate understanding of the human body, as well as a familiarity with using his powers on that minute level that no telekinetic he'd ever met could match. He had every confidence that he could at least determine what this plague *did*, if not how it attacked, and that would give their healers something to work with.
But as he probed, his confusion mounted. The boys seemed completely healthy, other than a few broken bones that probably came from falling out of the tree. He couldn't find any indication of disease or injury or *anything* that could possibly have killed them in an instant!
It was if their bodies had just been... shut... down.
Nate closed his eyes, more chilled now than at the thought of plague, and carefully extended his telepathy instead of telekinesis to gently probe at the two boys. He wouldn't be able to recognize this if the Clan Rebellion hadn't run across something similar once when he was a child in Crestcoast. Redd had looked so ill as she examined the body when Turrin summoned her, but she'd called Nate over and made sure he could recognize the signs as well. An enemy telepath had simply reached out and shut down the man's mind, the body immediately following.
A telepath had done this. One powerful enough to kill the entire village in the same instant. Nate didn't think *he* could manage that feat, even if he'd wanted to. Sean could probably do it, but he wasn't constantly splitting his attention with a deadly disease. Nate couldn't think of another telepath in his experience with this kind of power. Maybe Redd, but she was gone.
"My lord?" Tenlar asked, the captain's face eager as if hoping Nate had found an enemy they could fight.
"It's not a plague," Nate replied shortly. "I want you to take half the squad ahead to the nearest camp."
Nate nodded. "Fine. Make sure the commander there knows what happened here. The rest of you, stay here and give these people a proper burial, then rejoin the others."
"And you, my lord?"
"I'm returning to main camp," Nate replied, his eyes turned to steel. "Lord Stryfe needs to be aware of this."
"We have two squadrons here, one here, and three more here. I recommend we move two regiments to the north face, then--"
A startled squeak issued from Halpern's mouth as the map he was pointing to suddenly burst into flames. The strategist blinked at his Lord General, whose left eye was flaring brightly, the light accenting the deep lines in his face and the slightly ironic twist of his mouth.
"I feel better now," Stryfe remarked conversationally.
Halpern looked torn between irritation at the loss of his map and deep relief that *he* was not the one on fire. This time, of course, he was wise enough not to say anything against his commanding officer for the action. "Ah... moving on..."
The report was interrupted again by the entrance flap being pushed open and a man stepping inside. Stryfe half-stood and glared furiously at the intruder, shouting at his orderly. "Hudsen! What's the meaning of--*Nate*?"
"Hi," Nate replied wearily, his clothes and face slightly gray from road dust, exhaustion writ clearly in every line of his body.
Stryfe stood up the rest of the way and made his way over to his brother, putting an arm out to support him. "Oath, how'd you get here so quickly? Hudsen, have food sent for Lord Dayspring. Gentlemen, you'll excuse us?"
Stryfe's advisors rose as well and bowed to their lord, mumbling greetings and farewells in the same breath. Hudsen immediately disappeared to do Stryfe's bidding. Stryfe guided Nate to a chair, relieving him of his travel-stained cloak. "Oath, big brother, I'm glad to see you, but I wasn't in *that* much of a hurry. Have you been traveling day and night?"
Nate grinned weakly. "Not the whole time. But I had news for you."
"If it was that urgent, why didn't you contact me telepathically?"
Nate sobered quickly. "That's part of the problem. I knew the chance of anyone breaking our shielding is practically nonexistent, but I didn't want to take the chance." Nate took a deep breath. "We have a rogue telepath on the loose. A *flonqing* powerful one."
"Oath..." Stryfe sat down across from his brother, his face serious as his quick mind ran through all the issues. "What happened?"
Quietly, tersely, Nathan explained how he and his escort had run across the doomed village and what he'd surmised from his examination of the bodies. Stryfe interrupted him a few sentences in. "Wait, the village was near Aldain camp? Was it called Kathe?"
Nate's shoulders slumped a little in relief. "You've already heard. I don't suppose that means you've caught the telepath?"
To Nate's surprise, his brother chuckled slightly. "I suppose you could say that. I'm sorry you wore yourself out just for that, but I am glad to see you." He waved in the servants that appeared with food.
Nate frowned, but waited until they'd set up the food on the map table in front of him and withdrew. He grabbed some cold meat and bread and devoured it in a few bites, then washed it down with a long drink. Fortified, he returned his attention to Stryfe. "So tell me what happened. How'd you capture him. He had to be pretty strong."
"I'm flattered," Stryfe said dryly. The almost-smile vanished as Stryfe's face hardened again. "A resupply force from Aldain went into Kathe. They were attacked and slaughtered. Only one of them managed to escape, badly injured, to report to his superiors."
"Oath!" Nate swallowed another bite abruptly. "What does that have to do with the telepath?"
Stryfe stood and paced across the tent, stopping to stare meditatively into the distance. "This was the last straw," he reported dispassionately. "I'm not going to allow a situation where my men are murdered by *villagers*. We're not fighting a war with civilians as well as the generals."
"...I don't understand."
Stryfe turned back to face his brother. "They had to be made an example of," he said resolutely. "I wasn't going to send any more men in there to be trapped. That's probably what they were waiting for. So I took care of it."
"Sean..." Nate's voice was a whisper. "Tell me you weren't the one who did that."
"It was regrettable, but necessary."
Nate's mouth moved for a moment before he was able to put sound behind it. "Sean, there were CHILDREN there! Babies, old women! They weren't responsible for the attack!"
"I had to make an example, or my men would be in danger every time they went to a village!"
"There are other ways of making an example!"
"This was the one I chose," Stryfe said implacably.
"You *chose* to slaughter innocents?" Nate pushed his chair back and stalked over to stand in front of his brother. "How could you be so heartless?"
"You don't understand, Nate. You never do! You're so idealistic sometimes, I wonder how you could *possibly* have been raised by a warrior like Slym!"
"I'm idealistic BECAUSE I was raised by Slym! He was always *human* first, and a warrior second."
"I have a responsibility to the troops I lead to do it well. I can't afford to be ruled by sentiment."
"It's not *sentiment* to not slaughter a village full of innocents with a thought!" Nate shouted. "Didn't Redd teach you anything? Or are you too much Apocalypse's son?"
Stryfe paled and snarled, "I am who I am, and I am a GOOD general!"
"You're a *butcher*! First those men in the canyon, now Kathe--who's next?"
"Whatever is necessary!"
"And who decides what's 'necessary'?"
"Then my opinion doesn't even matter to you anymore?"
"Oath, Nate, don't be like this. Of course--"
"Don't be like what? I can't help the way I am. Slym and Redd trained me to be *better* than *this*!"
"They trained me too," Stryfe hissed with deadly softness.
"Slym would be *ashamed* of you!" Nate snapped. "I know I am."
If Nate had taken out his dagger and plunged it into his brother's chest, Stryfe could not have looked any more stunned and hurt than he did at that moment. He blinked once, his eyes full of betrayal. His chin shook for a moment, then firmed up as his eyes frosted over.
"If I shame you so much, I don't know why you want to be around me."
"Get. Out." Stryfe's voice was very low. His eyes burned when he stared at his brother.
Nate sucked in a breath. "If that's what you want. But I'm not going to come groveling back to you. You'd better be sure."
"Get out!" This time Stryfe roared the order. A lesser man would have flinched. Nate didn't even blink.
"Fine." He pulled his cloak back around him and matched his brother's steely gaze. "Goodbye, *Stryfe*."
Then he turned and stalked out of the tent, and this time, he didn't look back.