Waking up with a pounding headache, to find himself getting dragged along by the arms in an echoing corridor, was really NOT the way he wanted to start his day. Or night, or whatever, he was a little fuzzy about the time of day, right now. Anyway, the situation didn't improve by getting tossed into a dark cell mere seconds afterwards. He managed to catch himself in time to kiss the floor with less force than his captors probably intended, but still with more than he liked, thanks to the chains connecting the shackles around his wrists with the ring around his neck. Instantly rolling back into a ready crouch, regardless, he gave the chains an experimental tug while trying to figure out just what he landed himself into. The corridor had been brightly lit, even glaringly so, so now the shadows shrouding most of the metal-lined room were pitch-black, effectively hiding anything – or anyone – outside the sharply delineated shaft of light falling through a grill in the wall above the door. For the time being, the captain of the Royal Guard decided, he would stay near the light.
"Well, well, well. If that isn't Cain's little whelp." No matter what the situation, it always went worse when he heard that voice. Even though it sounded a lot more scratchy than Jeb Cain remembered, he would recognize that evil-grin-turned-sound anywhere.
"Zero!" he hissed. Something rustled in the shadows but his old nemesis did not step, smirkingly, into the light, as he expected.
"You still remember, good. Always knew you had more brains than both of your parents combined."
The young captain straightened up. Just one step closer to the light, just one move that gave away the ex-general's position, and the arrogant bastard was going to get his dues, plus ten annuals' worth of interest. The chains were too short to fully straighten his arms but they left him enough maneuverability to do some real damage, nonetheless. Five annuals as a rebel fighter taught you every dirty trick in the book and quite a few that would never make it into press. Hot anger swamped the niggling voice at the back of Jeb's head that tried to insist that there was something fundamentally wrong with both the voice and its position relative to the floor.
Maybe a bit of provocation would draw the former Longcoat out. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Zero."
The shadows chuckled, a nasty sound that turned into an even nastier cough. The niggling voice started yelling. The last time the young captain had heard that sort of wet wheeze, someone had taken a bullet to the lungs. Or the pointy end of a splintered rib. And the scratchiness sounded awfully like vocal cords damaged by screaming for hours and hours on end – and how Jeb wished he didn't know how that sounded. An icy knot was starting to form in his guts, the sort he had learned in his rebel days not to ignore. Something really screwy was going on here.
"Yes, yes, you prefer a more physical form of appreciation, don't you, boy? After all, you always came back for more slaps."
More shuffling in the shadows and the hated face finally leaned into the light, the insufferable smirk firmly in place. Mixed anger and embarrassment almost made the young captain miss how incongruous the expression was. The ex-general looked beaten up worse than he had in the rebel camp six cycles ago – and no one had pulled their punches then. With eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom, Jeb could make out bare shoulders, a figure lying prone on a sort of bunk, propped up on its elbows. The sight gave him pause, shortly. But my, wasn't payback a lovely bitch?
"Well, well, well," he echoed mockingly, "how times have changed. What happened, Zero? Some of your old buddies found out how you spilled all of the Witch's secrets, at the threat of a spoon?"
To the young captain's immediate disappointment – and half-denied puzzlement – the smirk only widened.
"More like some old buddy of yours, couple of faces looked somewhat familiar. Actually, if not for the cute little necklace you're wearing, I would have sworn this was your little show, boy. Unlike your old man, you have the guts to get your hands dirty if necessary – or should I say, the tastes …?"
That did it. He had his hands around the older man's neck too quickly for the latter to block him. The grip wasn't as tight as Jeb would have liked, thanks to the tangle of chains worn by both of them, but the former Longcoat could barely put up a token resistance, anyway, before he started to cough. Hot, frothy wetness burst through the split lips and spilled over the young captain's hands. Thoroughly disgusted, he dropped the convulsing body to the floor.
Jeb hadn't realized that he had hauled the other man out of the shadows until he saw him flop in the little pool of light like a stranded fish. Absurdly horrified – this was Zero, for Ozma's sake, who richly deserved all and every bad thing that could happen to a human being – the young captain retreated to the furthest wall.
After what felt like an eternity but was probably closer to a minute or two, the ex-general stopped coughing up blood and turned awkwardly towards Jeb. Beside a generous collection of bruises and a number of ugly looking wounds on his bare back – burns, possibly – the older man was also pulling himself along with his arms, dragging useless legs behind.
But the damn smirk was still returning, even on blood-smeared lips and teeth. "Don't like what you see, boy?"
"No. Not as much fun if someone else has beaten you to the punch." Great pun, captain, really witty, the annoying little voice at the back of Jeb's head remarked. Sounding disturbingly like his father, it continued, isn't it rather that you are too decent a man to find pleasure in the torture of another sentient being, no matter who it is?
"Palace life has made you soft," the former Longcoat drawled with a sneer, as if in comment to his conflicting thoughts. "The boy I stuffed into the iron suit would have thrown himself at any willing guard out there, just to get a look at this."
This time, Jeb caught himself halfway through the lunge, just close enough to recognize the triumph, followed by desperate disappointment, in the older man's eyes. The young captain drew back. This was actually an odd form of suicide by cop, he realized with a chill. He had seen enough lung shots – and so must have the former general – to know that the man was dying anyway, unless he got very fast and very hefty medical attention.
So why the desperate hurry? The icy knot in Jeb's guts tightened further. He almost missed the next verbal barb.
"Oh, come on, boy. Can't fault a man for expecting a child to come after his mother. And the Missus Cain was very eager to please, in exchange for …"
Fingers clenched into the chains just under the neck ring, the young captain pulled the ex-Longcoat close to his face. "Wrong answer, Zero. You are going to drown, in your own blood, slowly and painfully, and I'm not even going near you," he paused for emphasis, gratified to no end to see the damnable smirk slip at last, "until you beg me to!"
Dropping the chains, he wiped his hands on his pants and stalked back to the opposite corner. Turning to sit against the wall, he found the other man staring after him with an oddly frozen expression, before turning over and dragging himself back into the shadows.
Jeb watched the ex-general's slow progression to the metal bunk, watched him struggle to get his arms on top of the slightly over knee-high ledge – the chain between his wrists was shorter than that and he couldn't keep his torso upright without at least one arm bracing it – and tried to ignore the mix of strangled gasps and soft keening noises that went with the efforts. With head and shoulders finally atop the bunk, Zero simply let his head slump between his hands, trying to catch his breath back – a task not helped by his awkward position. When the wet rasps became worse over the course of several minutes and the former Longcoat made no move to get up further – wasn't able to, by the looks of it – the captain decided that he could not stand the watching any longer.
Three quick steps brought him on top of the semiconscious man, reaching down to grab him under the armpits. The chain between Jeb's wrists was shorter than was practical for that, it would dig deep into the injured back for a moment, but he would get the man onto the bunk and stop the ugly sounds. That was all he intended, the young man told himself, to put an end to the irritating noise.
The actual results of his actions were somewhat unexpected. The moment he tried to get a grip on the sweat-, blood-, whatever-slickened body, it reared back, trying to twist away with feeble but desperate movements.
"No, no, no, no, no," the man was begging, he was sobbing with fright, and Jeb had to fight down his nausea at the terror in the choking voice. He managed to lift the ex-general in top of the bunk despite the latter's best efforts to pull away, then stumbled away, feeling thoroughly sick. He had always taken pride in being feared by the Longcoats in his days as a rebel leader, but this tone made him feel like a monster beyond the Witch's wildest dreams. Though Jeb couldn't, for the life of him, discern what he had done to incite such terror.
Except … perhaps he hadn't. The young captain wasn't sure if the older man had been conscious enough to recognize just who had come to grab him. The thought did nothing to alleviate Jeb's nausea.
Looking back, he found the other man as he had dropped him, flat on his belly, face buried between his shackled arms. The young captain pushed off the wall, suddenly tired of everything. First sorting out the dangling legs of the former Longcoat, to straighten the limp body up, he then dropped onto the head end of the bunk, too. The broken form flinched as his weight came down, so close, then slumped again, defeated. The silence stretched, punctuated only by harsh but more regular breaths.
"When did they break your back?" Jeb asked abruptly, not really expecting an answer. He hadn't yet seen anyone with a broken back that had survived the next few moments, but somehow he had expected the same sort of swelling and bruising to appear as with any other broken bone.
He almost failed to hear the hoarse, muffled words. "Not broken. Shock-stick to the spine, it'll wear off, in a few hours." The smirk was gone, utterly, from the tone, and somehow Jeb missed it.
"That works?" Damn, if he had known that earlier, they could have made tons of prisoners at the Witch's Tower. Just disarm the Alchemists and then …. No, wouldn't have worked. They hadn't had the strength of troops then, to guard so many prisoners. Nor the inclination to take them.
"Yeah. Just, don't touch the back of the neck if you want people to talk afterwards. That can fry the brain."
This wasn't panicking Zero eager to talk, as it had been in the woods half an annual ago – though Jeb had later wondered how much of that had been an act. After all, the Longcoat general had sent them right into the heart of the Witch's fortress, with most of her troops gathered around and an Emerald and Double Eclipse empowered Witch on top, just moments after he had learned that he couldn't be caught at duplicity thanks to the Witch's protection. By all rights, it should have been a massacre – and not the way it had turned out to be.
This was toneless, answering a question because a question had been asked. It sent shivers down the young captain's spine.
But there was something he couldn't let hang up in the air. "My mother …" He trailed off, not really wanting to know.
The buried head shifted, pale eyes looking up at him. "… was far too desperate and angry to even think of offering herself to me. Wouldn't have taken her up on it, anyway. I have some pride left."
There was a pregnant pause, but in his breath-taking relief, the young man almost failed to notice it. "Or had. Please, kill me. Please, before they sic their Viewer on me and start all over again."
Jeb gave a start. Just when he thought the situation couldn't get any more nauseating … "What sort of Viewer would …?" But of course, "… same as would help the Sorceress. A very scared one."
"More like barking mad, in this case. But please, I'm begging you …"
At his most vengeful, the young captain had dreamed of this, considered it the most lovely vision known to man. Now he grabbed the other man's shoulder, regardless of how much that was likely to hurt, in his haste to stop him.
"Don't!" he choked out. Drew a deep breath. Thought of Tik-Tok, the nervous young bay that had somehow managed to impale itself on a broken tree limb and the grim look on his father's face when he had unholstered his gun. Goodnight, Tik-Tok, he had said soothingly, before pulling the trigger.
"Goodnight, Zero," Jeb said, bringing the heavy steel manacles down on the sandy-haired head.
Eager to get things over with before the former Longcoat regained consciousness, the young captain crossed his arms, slipped the chain between his wrists underneath the ex-general's chin and uncrossed his arms. The chain bit into the unprotected throat – and the world exploded into fireworks.
A/N: Something of an experiment, I usually try to keep dialog at a minimum, and this is nearly pure dialog or inner monolog, respectively. So feedback is highly appreciated, if the resulting story is readable (comprehensible? enjoyable?), at all.
The diagnosis as given by Jeb Cain may not be technically correct, but the young man is no more a medical man than I am. And in a world where you can remove the better part of a man's forebrain and still have him talk in coherent, if occasionally repetitive, sentences, the human body obviously works a bit different than on the Otherside.