He'd always been able to trust his eyes, before. His eyes saw passed the surface level, to the fundamental core of things where lies were difficult to make, if not impossible. Were it only the blond hair, the green eyes, he would've dismissed it as a cruel prank of Strife's, get Canaan to make him sleep in the yard a few days before they all forgot about it. Except...
...it can't be.
That strong quiet presence, that once clashed with every outward action, every spoken word, a good man who no longer knew how to be good. A memory that had stopped haunting him sometime in the last fifty years, and now like a ghost, back again.
It shouldn't be possible,
"What is this? Is this real?"
"It is a place that doesn't properly exist anymore,"watching, seeing that blond head turning this way and that, green eyes trying to make sense of the washed out landscape, "How are you here?"
It was a question that went unanswered, once formed it was already too late. Might this explain it? Had he missed something so big?
Trick didn't follow their conversation, he already knew it from listening to Strife think it over and over, refining his list and picking his target, eager to have this first step done and for them to be out there and active again, no more lying low and planning out. The man beside him paid attention, wanting to be professional, guarded and wary, afraid of making a mistake. Thoughts drifted to himself more than a few times, a friendly curiosity; so easy to read into the lack of fear or judgment.
"Are you going to say anything?"
Tallen turns to him, face blood streaked, only his hands are clean gripping the wheel; his face is full of sorrow, "What do you want me to say?"
There is no horror, no disgust, no second thought of coming near him again; Tallen is afraid for him and concerned for him, and there are no dark thoughts skirting the edge to grow later into a gulf between them. At his lowest moment, dirty, violated, covered in gore he could not get off, it is just the response he needs.
You always understood.
And then he was standing, off the chair, and thoughts turned to the exchange of information, of mentally backtracking his path in to find the way out, of going home and sleeping the day away, avoiding someone called Nix at all cost.
"Be in touch then," Strife's voice, pushing him out the door, thoughts pacing like a frantic animal waiting to get out of its cage; Strife often felt like that, fire and motion. "Pleasure doing business with you."
Trick's gloved hands curled into fists in his lap, keeping himself seated while that presence retreated with a last look around, a lingering look at himself (say something, please). Trick could follow it outside, might've been able to continue to the archway if he concentrated.
There was no chance, Strife leaped to action as soon as they were alone. "Well? Tell me I'm not seeing shit?"
What should he say? He knew what he saw, but... He looked to Canaan for help but there was no guidance there: Canaan knew nothing, he was getting ready to ask.
"I – I don't understand," shaking his head, it made nothing clearer.
"But it is? Right? Same guy?"
"I – I think so," but how? How could it be?
"All right, I give up. Just tell me who it is?"
"Fuck, really? It wasn't that long ago."
"And yet it doesn't ring a bell. Must've made a greater impression on you. Let's see if I can guess why."
"Oh, nice try, love, but way off."
"I knew him," Trick could see where this conversation was going, he wasn't in the mood for their usual back and forth, "Before. He worked for me."
Canaan's mind went black, "You don't have employees."
"He was my bodyguard."
"Jacender was your bodyguard. Jacender worked for me."
"Jacender was one man. After Agnarian was killed," a lump formed in his throat, expanded, cut off his words, "I met him, in a bar."
Blacker, a sudden gathering storm, "Someone you met in a bar."
"Oh, it was not like that. And you know it. Though the gods know you thought it once before. I do not have it in me now to convince you yet again," his breath came out ragged, he couldn't cry anymore, the absence was its own kind of pain, "He was my friend."
"Wait a minute," and just like that, the light came on, "...London's wet boy? That's who that is?"
"You catch on quick, love."
"Well pardon me, not thinking he'd still be alive."
"He's not," Strife said, "Tallen's dead. Don't you remember that?"
"Yeah. It was – what was it? Like, ten years before you? Right?"
"Something like that," Trick agreed.
"Yeah, him and that – what was it, friend of his? The skinny quiet kid, they got taken out in that bloodbath in An'khte-har."
Canaan's thoughts stilled; he did remember that, of course. "And we're sure he's dead?"
"We buried him."
"Did we kill him?"
"No. Just didn't get there in time."
Canaan's mind worked quickly, coming to the same conclusion they all had, only he gave voice to it, "Are you trying to say that kid is an imprint?"
Strife sounded uncertain, "Well, I mean he must be, if its the same guy like Trick said."
"How is that possible? Where the fuck did he come from?"
"He said Veil. Like you, which is kind of-"
"That's not what I meant," Canaan said, "Whose imprint is he?"
Heart stuttered in his chest, Trick had been carefully avoiding that, skirting every thought around it, not wanting to touch it. But Canaan was right, there had to be someone – someone who-
(cold poison blue, reflecting on a knife's edge; manacles biting into your wrists, can't move, no escape even if you could)
("Let's test that theory, shall we?")
(no escape in death even, not ever, not for you)
"-putting off weird signals," Strife was speaking, "He didn't know me. And not in the way you didn't know me, when you totally did. I mean there was nothing. And okay, maybe not me, but you," addressing Trick now, "Tallen should've known you. But he didn't seem to."
"No. He was confused," pulling his mind out of the past, away from unconfirmed fears, tackling what he knew, "Memory is not standard. Its something to be added."
Strife continued, "And last time, you'd almost think this might explain where that little fire trick of his came from. But Tallen wasn't modded last time. I know that, I was in the back of the vehicle patching him up, I saw him out of that iron modesty suit. He was hurt bad, but not bad enough to disrupt a mod."
"Of course he was not modded," Trick interrupted, testier than intended, "Do you not think I would have seen that, that I wouldn't have said something?" He knew he was messing up syntax, mixing languages, as happened when he let his concentration slip, to carefully sort through a too large knowledge base. Thankfully the ancient imprint and over educated ex Khar'talan could still follow most of the time, "The fire trick is just what we always thought, accident born of necessity. Though this could explain where the initial aether exposure came from that allowed it to occur."
Strife's thoughts rippled in confusion, "How? If he wasn't modded then, doesn't that mean this is new?"
"He is not modded now." He would've seen that, as he could on Canaan, both the ones that were on and the ones that were – not inert, Canaan's body was too old, knew what it was supposed to be doing and pulled what resources it could to function as it ought. Trick could still see those sigils, carved into soul, waiting to wake up. "It is not a thing I would miss," he said, "Tallen is, otherwise, normal."
"And that doesn't make any damn sense," Canaan again, "There is no conceivable reason a god would imprint someone that would not also require that person to be modified. And since when do those arrogant bastards not sign their own work?"
"What about something like Mae-el? I mean, she's-"
Trick barked a laugh at that, but it was Canaan who explained, "You do know Mae-el wasn't imprinted because Lynk wanted to get laid. She was a human sacrifice, gave up her life to keep the Watcher anchored to the world. She's not weaponized, like we are, but she is not unaltered." Far from it, if Trick concentrated he could pick her out in the distance, yet another bright light lately occupying the once dim space of Veil and its outer wall. It was forgivable that Strife not realized, most of Mae-el's alterations were mental, with an immunity to illness though she still died of old age.
Canaan's mind quieted again, holding one thought, turning it over. Strife knew the look, "What?"
"Lynk," slow spoken, sounding it out, "He never mentioned it."
"What are you talking about?"
"When he came to us about London, he didn't mention it. Tallen's existence, yes, but nothing else." Trick remembered that, nothing they hadn't already known, and he himself met Tallen not long after.
"Whatever his feelings about me, I don't think Lynk would ask me to kill someone without telling me the man had a fully imprinted assassin working under him." A pause, "So either this is a brand new thing, or Lynk didn't know about it."
"Is that possible?" Strife asked.
"Possible, for a while. Not very likely, not by accident. Drogan worked hard to keep Lynk from finding out about us until he was ready." Attention zeroed in on him again, "Think very carefully, Trick. Was Tallen imprinted last time or not?"
As though that wasn't what he had been doing the whole time. But the more he did, the murkier it was. "...I don't know," not the wanted answer, "I don't know. He is...his energy, it is – strong, like yours." Hard to explain to someone who couldn't see, the difference between an image on a mutable surface and one boldly carved in stone, "I had attributed it to the fire talent. It still could have been." Imprints were marked by modification and branding, that was the tell. "I don't know. Sorry, but I don't know."
"Fuck that," Strife cut in, shifting conversation away; one of those hidden signs that he cared, "Are we sure Lynk didn't do this? He's got one pet human already, why not two?"
Canaan didn't consider it more than a second, "No, Lynk wouldn't do something that underhanded. And he wouldn't have an unauthorized imprint, it would violate his precious rules." And that was the root of Lynk's problem with the two of them; Trick had to agree, it wasn't him.
Strife's thoughts moved right along. Okay then, so what about the rest of the usual suspects? I know they've been out of circulation for a while, but its not like we know when-
"No!" the word ripped out of his throat, "No, not – not him." The horror, the idea-
("Come out, come out, wherever you are! How long do you think you can hide from me this time?")
Not Tallen, not-
"I would have known that," a poison taint on everything he touches, Trick would've seen it, he would have.
Canaan picked up on the thought, nodding agreement, "Not Drake. Tallen living his life not chained to a bed is a good clue," wordless apologies were pushed his way. "And before its asked, not Drogan either. He would've told me."
Canaan's mind was more complicated than that. Drogan hardly told him everything, more than expected, but ego or amusement often stayed his tongue; but this, building a second solider, in secret no less, would have been...a violation, a betrayal, and a line the Berserker would not have crossed.
"He had a glyph around his neck," Strife put in.
"I didn't see anything."
"It was a piece of jewelry he was wearing. I only noticed it because I thought it was weird."
"I didn't get a good look. Didn't seem he'd like me breathing down his neck, it was a touchy thing getting him to come with me in the first place."
"Jewelry can be bought, I doubt it means anything."
A spark of annoyance shot off, "Maybe. But its not exactly the culture here, or in Veil. Which is why I noted it."
"It is possible," Trick said, because it wasn't bad thinking, and they had few clues as it was.
"And I suppose an accident is out of the question?"
"Can't say I've ever heard of it, so I don't know. But I don't see how it would be missed for long, and then taken advantage of."
That was the crux of it, and the part that hurt the most to think. The Tallen he had known had been used once too often as it was; from what little he picked up, the current Tallen wasn't doing much better.
We never do, though. We really don't belong anymore, anywhere.
"That's why this doesn't make sense. If he's immortal, then someone owns him. And he should be living three feet up their ass, doing exactly what he's told. That's how it works." They were the sole exceptions now, Canaan and him, death and incapacitation opening the cage, "And instead he's, what? Smuggling? In fucking Outworld? Strong arming for London? That was allowed to happen? Instead of a hole being punched through London's skull for touching what was not his? That asshole was well over the acceptable target line, so how did that not happen?"
"...maybe," a sudden thought, like sparks off a flame; that's how Strife's mind looked to him, as opposed to Canaan's gathering storm, or Tallen's ripples in a pond. "Maybe it does make sense. Maybe Tallen is exactly where he's supposed to be."
Skeptical, but lack of verbal response meant Canaan was willing to listen; Strife plowed on, "Hear me out. What else is here in Outworld? What else that was also there back then, that a god might have an interest in? You."
Sparks flew faster, brighter, Strife thought he had something, "Look, we all knew, and Lynk knew too, London was a front man for someone. Someone pulling his strings, moving him around, feeding him information. Someone that could give him the kind of information that made Lynk want him dead, that's someone that could also hook him up with an imprint assassin."
One part of Canaan's mind came up fast in doubt. "That's not likely," it wasn't a full no, though, "Didn't we just clear Lynk's top suspect?"
"Lynk could've been wrong. Or partially wrong. He could've had more than one backer, could've been a third party taking advantage. That's what I'd do." A pause, "Why would London have come after you? The hunter thing was a cover, there were far easier targets to maintain that. Or he could've fed everyone in Green River a bunch of bullshit, its not like they'd know better. But no. He knew who you were, and how did he know that? He pushed at you repeatedly."
"So what are you saying? That London knew all along Tallen came to us? That all the shit he pulled, was trying to make him defect? I remember that wasn't Tallen's opinion."
More sparks flew, dismissive, "Maybe he didn't. London did wind up dead with the rest of them, after An'khte-har. Outlived his usefulness or overstepped his bounds, isn't that what we thought?"
That removed Canaan's doubt, "Who are we talking about here?"
"I don't know, take your fucking pick. How many enemies did you and Drogan make? Or you, after what you did to them? Or people just wanting to see the last piece of Drogan done away with?"
It was distressing to know he was right, the list of suspects could be near endless; Trick's head bowed in useless regret.
"What would be the point?" Canaan asked now, "Sending a – a blank imprint, essentially a normal fucking human, to what? What is he supposed to do against someone like me? You be quiet," Pointed at Strife and only too soon, Trick could see thoughts of green farm boys and lucky shots.
Strife let it go, turning his mind toward an explanation instead. "Hmm. Well, even unmodified he'd still serve as a tracker, wouldn't he? Know where you are, could guess what you're doing?"
"To what end though?"
Another flurry of sparks, Trick felt eyes on him again, "Are we sure he isn't modified? At all?"
"I would have seen it," Trick reiterated, even as he started to see where Strife was going.
"Yeah, but anyone that knows about Canaan knows about you. Knows they'd have to sneak past you first. So is there a way he could be altered that you wouldn't see?"
"No," is the first thing he said, but, "...that I know of." Obstacles can be overcome, given all the time in the world to think about it, Trick learned that well from early years. He mentally pushed at Canaan, wanting him to say something, tell them it was impossible, Tallen wasn't a trap they (he) had welcomed in.
"Or maybe not," Strife conceded, "Maybe he's just the tracker. Maybe the actual bomb is something else. Someone else."
He wanted to deny it, but Trick had to admit, there was a certain neatness to it, a ruthless efficiency that made it all the more plausible. Any joy at seeing his friend alive again started seeping away, a quiet anger rolling in. The same anger he remembered from that final day in the snowfield, this was how it ended, and wanting to lash out at those who caused it, missing his chance by hours. And now again, no peace in death even, brought right back for round two.
Someone put Tallen in that position, someone gave him to London, knowing what he was, what he'd do. And before that...someone, with the power and the right to stop it saw it all and did nothing. And for what? Power? Vengeance? Petty territorial squabbles?
"We are not suggesting Tallen is an active conspirator?" Trick turned his head in the direction he knew they were, the quiet storm front and the crackling flame. He had an impression of Strife perched hawk like on the arm of the sofa, looking back at him.
"Fuck no, are you kidding? That boy would be the worst spy ever." The reassurance he projected did not match his flippant tone, "Besides, that would be no good, right? You'd see through it. Better he be a blank slate."
Canaan had thought enough, the conclusion like a thunderclap, "Congratulations, Strife, you've made me paranoid." Thoughts ordered into a quick plan, testing probabilities, finding backups and alternatives, "Keep in contact. After this job is over, offer him another, and another. Whatever it takes, get him on the payroll, welcome him to the club. He goes nowhere until I am convinced his existence has nothing to do with me."
"An offer we would be making regardless. We still – I owe him." Trick tried to find Canaan's eyes through the chaotic mess of his vision, "I told him I would help him. I told him, and then-"
"That wasn't your fault," Canaan said, forceful and uncompromising.
"I know that," in time, he had, "But this is a second chance. More than, if what we think is true and none of it was an accident." He smiled a little, replaying old memories, "I can not believe smuggling in Outworld is where he wants to be. He used to wish for a quiet life."
`"You know I'm not in the position I was before. I don't have space, resources and coin I can just give to him." His mind wasn't a no, though.
"I am certain you can manage something, in time." He tried for teasing, "We both know you are going to do this for me. But if you would like to make a token resistance to maintain your illusion of power, I will gracefully play along. Please, Canaan, please, one favor."
Strife cackled, Canaan registered a smile he most likely wasn't showing, "Is that how it is?"
"If power is a matter of being obeyed. Will you do this for me, Canaan, please?"
There was never a question. "I'll tell you what? The whole Tallen situation, its all yours. You can be his contact, you can find something to do with him, you can monitor him. Just keep me informed and I'll get you what you need."
"That would be most ideal." And he already knew what he was going to do, it should be easy, like it was before.
It wouldn't end the same, not this time. They'd be prepared, all of them, it would be different, it would.
A throbbing pain was all it was, some distant part of his mind that still remembered crying, remembered lying on a beach and sobbing for anyone, anyone to please help, trying to replicate that now. But those pathways were long severed, his eyes didn't work that way, the emotion pounded uselessly against a locked door.
He was finally free to touch the face now resting in his lap, the pink lines even his gloves fingers would leave eventually no longer mattered. Still, everything was still, body function ceased, aether just starting to fade away.
"Hang in, this is almost over. You are going to be all right."
Trick's other hand pressed to the gaping throat wound, as though he could close it, cauterize it, wring the life blood from that once white scrub top, put it back, take it back, take it all back.
That wasn't the worst of it.
Strife had tried to prepare him, on the drive over
"I guess, they wanted him to make a phone call..."
Strife had spent a brief time patching Tallen up, he hadn't known the half of it.
"...he held off as long as he could."
Tallen's face felt swollen under his fingertips, broken bones moving beneath the skin. He would've been disfigured. Again. Crippled too most likely, that hand looked smashed beyond repair, fingers would've had to be removed.
Wanted him to make a phone call...
I know you thought yourself incapable of love, any longer, that you were not worthy of him. I do hope you knew that you were wrong, before the end.
Canaan stood nearby, a dark splotch on a bright, lively landscape. He was a confusing mix of emotions, sympathy the first to jump out.
"London is responsible for this," his voice hoarse with grief, it had been a long time since he last heard it such, "I want him dead." Cursed vision allowed him to see the full extent of the torture, it wasn't difficult to guess which had been the thing to break him. Someone would pay for that, "I want him to suffer."
"Done," Canaan said, "Should've done that in the first place." Closer, the impression of an outstretched hand, "We need to leave, Trick. Now."
Not a confusing mix, just one he had never seen before: it wasn't quite fear, an uneasiness that very nearly was. It was startling to see on a man that almost never blinked. "What did you see?"
"Nothing I can make sense of. On that basis alone, I don't want to stay."
Closing his eyes, Trick sensed Strife shivering by the vehicle, just as eager to be gone. His arms tightened around the body, unwilling to let go, "We take him with us. We have to bury him. Not here."
Reluctant, but Canaan agreed, "If you want."
"What about-" but he came up short, seeing the answer in Canaan's mind, an endless image of blood on snow.
"There's nothing left to bury."
Denied his companion even in death, a death Tallen had feared was inevitable would be his fault when it came. There was nothing Trick could do now to even soften that, how could life be this cruel? Tallen hadn't deserved this, none of it.
"You are certain?"
"I've walked up and down the area," more images flashed through his mind, deliberately for Trick to see, "All vehicle tracks were accounted for, there are no footprints anywhere. Nothing to suggest anybody left here alive."
"Then how...?" It didn't make sense. Was it a suicide mission? Who wanted Tallen and Frost dead that badly? And why, for what possible reason?
The surrounding area gave no answer. The environment was swirling, strong and clean, no disruption, nothing here that should not be. So it wasn't an aether weapon, a god would've left a signature (and required a reason), what else could it be?
Trick carefully lay Tallen's body on the ground; he struggled to see his face, one last time. Tallen's eyes were green, open, and Trick wondered what the last thing he saw was that put those tear tracks on his cheeks, afraid he knew the answer already.
He took Canaan's offered hand, let himself be pulled back to his feet; he brushed clean snow off his person, feeling the wet but not the cold. Behind Canaan's shoulder, a short distance used to be a cabin they'd appropriated and used for shelter on occasion, now a blaster pile of lumber in the center of a blood soaked mess.
"He's all right, he's alive," Canaan had said when he picked up him on the way back to the warehouse Tallen had been rescued from for a second look around. It had been a relief, how had it ended this way?
He can see perfectly in his place, sees what he often misses outside. Tallen sits in his usual spot on the porch of the only home not faded away. He looks tired, afraid, nearing the end of his reserves.
Trick stands nearby, watching, wishing there was more he could do. Comfort was a luxury he'd had little of, but he did have knowledge of what it was to be alone, hurt and scared; there was only one comfort wanted in those times, one he never had himself, but which he could give now.
"I talked to Canaan. He already knew, he is on his way."
Tallen's voice is thin, wavering, "How?"
"Frost, he called them."
"Frost? How – how would he have-?"
"From your phone, he took it from your room," his hands fall on tense shoulders, he can touch here as well, "Do you understand? They're coming. They are a few hours away." A cavalry of three, the two would be more than enough.
Tallen looks afraid to hope, it was not likely those who took him would allow him to remain unconscious much longer. "Hang in, this is almost over. You are going to be all right."
End of Volume One
A/N: Ouch. While my decision to end it here had more to do with what's coming next, I almost feel like apologizing for the downer ending. Now that this is completed, I do plan to edit it for excessive wordage (yes, I know, I really do) and rewrite a few scenes that I feel need it. Otherwise, the second volume will be called Ripple Effect and I'll get it started as soon as I can.
Thanks to those who stuck with me. :)