Fierce, icy gusts of driven snow howled across the tree-studded mountainside with unceasing ferocity. Then the wavering shriek of blizzard-force winds slowly gave way to a deep, muted rumble. Powerful retros sliced down through the storm like fiery volcanoes. Above them, a sleek black shape swam into view and hovered over the thick forest.
Wolverine's dark eyes narrowed as he squinted against the icy wind. Without warning, he released Rogue's slender wrists and dropped the last several feet to the ground.
Thick, heavy snow enveloped him almost to the waist. Undaunted, he slashed at the tall snowdrifts with his long adamantium claws. Snow flew in every direction as he slowly trudged toward the dark shape half-buried at the clearing's edge.
Rogue soared on ahead of him and ducked through the shelter's gaping doorway. "They ain't here, Wolverine!" she anxiously exclaimed as he hesitated beside the mangled plane, sniffing at the cold air. "But where could they've gone?"
Wolverine's eyes narrowed again. Grimacing, he triggered his communit button. "Someone took 'em away!" he rasped, glaring up at the distant jet. "There were six of 'em! They had guns...an' every one of 'em stinks of mutant-hater!"
Before Cyclops could respond, Wolverine slapped at the unit again and charged back down the slope, claws extended. "C'mon, Rogue, let's go!" he yelled over his shoulder.
Rogue stared after her teammate in surprise, then shrugged and floated back up into the air. "You heard him, Cyclops--let's git movin'!" she urged. "I'll mark his trail!"
She waved up at the hazy Blackbird, then turned and hurried after Wolverine.
Beast took another threatening step toward Jake, his blue eyes glittering with bitter anger. "How much did they offer to pay you?" he repeated.
Carly grabbed at his large hand and tugged him back. "It doesn't matter, Hank!" she insisted. "We have to free those other people, before she kills them!"
Carly was right...vengeance would have to wait, no matter how much he might yearn to feel the burly woodsman's throat beneath his fingers! Beast reluctantly subsided, and glanced around their end of the clearing.
"How much ammunition do you have?" he demanded, gesturing at Jake's long, old-fashioned rifle. "I need a good diversion so that I can circle around and rescue your men!"
Jake's eyes widened in blank surprise. "You'd risk your life for us?" he stammered, shaken. What kind of creature was this, anyway?
"Unless you have any better ideas!" Beast retorted.
Only a few brief moments had passed since those first deadly laser bolts had been fired. Yet Jake felt as if an entire lifetime had swept by him, shaking the very foundations of all his beliefs.
Mutants were bad, evil, treacherous--everyone knew that! So he'd had no qualms about tracking down two of the filthy creatures, and turning them over to the strange woman, when she'd offered them a big reward.
But now...now he was seeing things a little differently! These two mutants were offering to save his partners, offering to risk their very lives for men who'd tried to betray them!
So who was really the evil one? Them...or him?
His men were scattered nearby, rifles cocked as they silently watched the angry exchange. They'd follow him no matter what he chose...but he'd feel a whole lot better about rescuing his other teammates, especially if these two mutants could really help.
Now that he knew better, he could never turn them over to the strange woman...the betrayer!
Carly relaxed as a grim smile appeared behind his thick beard, and he slowly nodded. "Aye, we can do that much for you," he assured Beast. "Tanner! Wilkins! You stay with me! The rest of you, spread out!" he ordered. "This is the ultimate bear hunt!"
Tanner urgently gestured over his shoulder, his ruddy face pale. "You ain't kiddin', boss!" he gulped. "Looks like we ain't got the only animal trainer around!"
A deep, threatening roar snapped Jake's head around just as a huge, shaggy brown mass shook free of the far bushes and arrogantly sauntered into the clearing. Its long teeth glistened in the sun-streaked light. Then it rolled its head around and emitted another challenging bellow.
"I'll be damned if that ain't the biggest grizzly I ever seen!" one of the other men whispered, his eyes huge with mingled terror and respect.
Another gigantic bear meandered into the clearing, and Carly gulped as its razor-sharp claws scraped deep marks in the damp ground. The forest echoed as it reared on thick, muscular legs and clawed at the distant sky, roaring a furious challenge.
Beast wrapped a comforting arm around Carly's trembling shoulders, then reluctantly stepped back. "If you let any harm come to her," he warned Jake, "I will kill you myself, oath or no oath!"
She couldn't stop him from going, but...
Carly quickly threw her arms around Beast's neck, and pressed a kiss against his cheek. "I love you, Hank!" she whispered in his ear. "Be careful!"
The warm glow in Beast's crystal-blue eyes was all the answer she needed. Then he was gone, camouflaged by the nearest tree's thick foliage as he nimbly swung up into its branches and disappeared.
Another burst of laser fire made them duck. Then Jake straightened again and clutched his firle a little more securely. "What oath was he talking about?" he demanded. "Just who are you people, anyway?"
Carly proudly lifted her head. "Hank is one of the X-Men! They're sworn to protect all humans, whether they deserve it or not!" she boasted.
"Yeah?" he muttered, squinting around the boulder as he took careful aim at one of the roaring grizzlies. "So where do you fit into the picture?
"Damn! I missed it!" he added, bewildered, as the rifle jumped in his hands. In the clearing, his target defiantly rose to its full height again, bellowing.
Wilkins threw a small rock in their direction, then jerked his head toward the equipment shed. "Hey, boss! Pete an' Bob are headin' around the mess hall, tryin' to get a clear shot at those guys in the storehouse!" he hissed. "You want me to follow the mutant, or go 'round the other side?"
Carly stiffened and took an angry step in his direction, but Jake pulled her back. "Stay put, you idiot, an' shut your mouth!" he snapped. "Hoskins can go! You worry 'bout those two in the side cabins!"
"Side cabins?" Carly craned her neck to peer around him. "There isn't anyone in those cabins, Jake!" she protested. "They're both empty!"
He jerked her back behind the tree only an instant before a glowing red energy bolt lanced out of the nearest window. Several inches above their heads, the shaggy bark exploded, raining hot debris over them.
"The devil they are!" Jake retorted, brushing sticky bits of sap off his wide shoulders. "Now stay down an' shut up!"
Carly defensively huddled closer to the tree, shocked by his savage tone. Those cabins were empty, she just knew it! If only Hank was still here--he'd have made this stubborn lumberjack see reason!
Well, she might not be as big or strong as Hank was, but she could still show Jake a thing or two! Cautiously keeping her head down, she began inching back toward the large sleds.
Those laser guns must be remotely controlled--she could feel tremendous concentration radiating from the storehouse. If she could short-circuit one of them, Jake would have to believe her!
Within the privacy of his carefully-shielded mind, the hidden man sneered and cast a malevolent glare through the trees.
And she was doing just what he'd been waiting for!
Stupid girl! Just like her companion, damn his shaggy blue hide!
But not for long. Not for long!
Just a few more steps...
The snowy ground blurred beneath Wolverine's boots as he dashed down the mountainside.
Not much further now...the icy drifts were already giving way to muddy terrain. And he could hear the distinctive whine of laser rifles somewhere ahead. Close by, and getting closer.
Grunting slightly with the effort, he swung up into the nearest tree and continued downhill at high speed. There was no telling who might be down there hiding, waiting for him, ready to pounce! No sense in giving away his position too soon!
Like the wolverine he resembled, he suddenly stopped and sniffed at the air, and his black eyes narrowed.
Yeah, the lumberjacks were down there, all right. And so were Beast and the girl. He could smell their fear and hatred as the wind shifted, teasing his sensitive nose.
But something didn't make sense! He could hear the loud, angry growling from a pair of grizzly bears. Huge ones, from the sound of it! Their pungent stink oughta be chokin' him...but there were no animal scents on the cold, crisp wind, none at all!
And those lasers...who was firing 'em? Not the lumberjacks--the bitter tang of rifle oil and old-fashioned bullets was unmistakable! Beast hadn't taken any heavy 'munitions with him, and he'd bet that Professor Bob Parkwood didn't stock any laser guns, either! So someone else must be down there!
If Beast and Carly were caught in the crossfire...
Swearing, Logan launched himself at the next tree. He had to get there in time, or...
A stealthy movement on the ground made him hesitate. It was the girl, sneaking off toward those muddy sleds! And the lumberjacks, they weren't trying to stop her. Didn't even see her, in fact!
What was she trying to do? And where was Beast?
His keen nose gave him an immediate answer. And now he could just glimpse a trace of Beast's thick blue fur through the treetops as the nimble scientist edged toward the storehouse.
Why wasn't Beast down there with Carly, protecting her?
Suddenly another scent assaulted his senses, sharp and distinctive...and dangerously familiar.
"The Sultan!" he snarled.
His long claws instantly extended from his clenched fists and rasped together. That rotten little weasel was down there somewhere, just itching for trouble...
There! A long, thick vine was winding along the ground, closer and closer to Carly's feet! Just like a damned snake charmer, he thought as it rose into the air, swaying slightly.
"The little maggot must be gettin' better if he can manipulate things now, 'stead of just snatchin' 'em from a distance!" he sardonically muttered under his breath.
For one brief instant, he considered yelling out a warning. Then he released his breath again. For all he knew, the Sultan and those lumberjacks might be on the same side!
The day hadn't dawned when he couldn't beat that runty little sneak-thief, no matter how much his talents had improved! For the moment he'd wait, and see what happened.
Beast's eyes narrowed as he crouched in the thick pine branches and stared down at the storehouse. Sporadic bursts of fiery energy were erupting from the front windows. On the far side of the clearing, Jake and his men were still firing back, providing him with an excellent distraction.
Still, it seemed almost too easy! Surely, whoever their attackers were, they must be expecting a flank attack!
And those huge grizzly bears weren't acting properly, either! They didn't seem at all disturbed by the deadly bullets and energy bolts whizzing past their huge, shaggy heads! Could someone be controlling them, hypnotizing them somehow?
His right leg still ached from the crash. Bracing himself, he launched himself at the last tree. From there, he could swing down onto the roof and in through that back window, where those four captured lumberjacks were tied up...
Without warning, the tree flickered and vanished.
And he was falling...falling...
An instant before the hard ground reached up to knock the wind from his lungs, he heard Carly's terrified scream...
Carly only had time for one frantic cry before thick vines coiled around her writhing body. Then a strong hand clamped over her mouth, half-suffocating her, as she was dragged backwards into the forest.
Despite her panic, she desperately cried out again, mentally reaching for him.
Hank, save me!
Suddenly a new mind impinged on hers, cool and soothing, full of confidence. And so powerful! Would she ever become so skilled?
You already have the power, the soft voice assured her. All of us have secret fears--the skill is in finding them and using them to your advantage!
New hope flooded through Carly as she rebelliously dug her feet into the grass. Her captor was flesh-and-blood, not one of those hated Sentinel robots! What secret fears might his mind harbor, if she could just find a crack in his mental armor?
The thick vines immediately tightened, choking her, as her feet left the ground. "Don't you try your feeble little tricks on me, girl!" a harsh voice grated in her ear.
No wonder she hadn't sensed him nearby! Oddly heartened by her failure, Carly strained against the clinging vines, trying to impede his progress. Jake and his men had heard her scream, but they couldn't get a clear shot at him. If she could just make him turn sideways for a moment...
"I told you, knock it off!" the man snarled, telekinetically shaking her. "You pathetic little piece of human scum! How dare you think that you can compete with a superior species! Abomination!"
A deep rumbling suddenly drowned out his cruel insults. Twin jets of fire splayed across the muddy clearing, searing the sparse wisps of grass into charred dust. Two small figures, one dressed in green and the other in flowing white, soared through the air as a huge black jet settled to the ground.
Her hopes revived, Carly sank her teeth into the Sultan's hand. His startled yelp of pain made her eyes glitter with satisfaction.
She'd show him! Superior species, indeed!
Rogue's urgent yell came a moment too late. He was too far away...
...and then Carly's terrified scream echoed through the clearing as he landed on a big pile of broken pine branches. A grimace of pain flashed across his rugged face as he rolled and staggered to his feet.
"You okay, Beast?" Rogue gasped as she skidded to a stop and hovered in the air just above him.
He was weakly nodding, waving across the clearing with one large hand. "Carly! Go help Carly!" he insisted. "I will recover in a moment!"
A sudden burst of laser fire made them leap apart. "Hang on, Beast!" Rogue exclaimed, whirling back around and grabbing his hands. "You'll be safer up here, 'til ya get your breath back!"
The ground retreated as she soared up over the cabin's sturdy wooden roof and deposited him along the peak. Then she hesitated, floating on the brisk air currents, and stared down at the two roaring grizzly bears. "Well, now, will ya lookit that?" she curiously murmured. "I ain't never seen any wild critters act that way before, have you?"
Beast shook his head. "Those two animals have been acting in a most peculiar fashion," he conceded, rubbing at his bruised ribs. "It would appear that they are under some sort of hypnotic spell!"
"I'll say, if all that noise from the Blackbird didn't scare 'em off!" Rogue grinned. "Well, now, maybe I can help out a little!" She cheerfully winked at him, then launched herself back into the air and shot toward the ground.
Several glowing energy bolts sliced through the air, nearly charring her new flight suit. Rogue effortlessly swooped in an intricate pattern, blessing her uncanny sixth sense for impending danger, then dove at the nearest grizzly.
Startled, she tumbled across the ground, then soared back up and spun around. The huge bear was still there, defiantly tossing its head and roaring a challenge.
Angry now, she instinctively dodged one of Cyclops's energy blasts and floated directly in front of the furious creatures. One of them reared on its hind legs and bellowed, then dropped back down again. Neither of them made any effort to attack her.
Bewildered, Rogue glanced around the suddenly-crowded clearing. Jean was at Cyclops's side, her eyes closed as she psychically projected a defensive force field around them. To either side of them, Jubilee and Gambit were exchanging brilliant energy blasts with the men in the side cabins.
The lanky Cajun seemed to move in slow motion as he charged up several cards and hurled them at the open window. The wall promptly exploded. Satisfied, he yanked out another handful of cards and turned to help Jubilee.
"Remy, look out!" Rogue yelled as another vivid burst of light suddenly erupted from the damaged cabin and glanced off the Blackbird's sturdy hull only a few inches above his head. Before he could protest, she threw herself in the laser's path...
...and nothing happened. No blazing heat. No damage to her flight suit.
Gambit's reddish eyes widened in belated understanding. "Dey ain't real!" he yelled at Jubilee. "Fergit dem, petít--dere's no one in dere! Aim at the storehouse, like Cyclops is doin'!"
"Of course!" Beast murmured, clenching his fists in exasperation. "No wonder Carly could not 'see' our opponents--they must have an illusionist working with them!"
He stifled the impulse to turn and search the trees for a glimpse of his beloved soulmate. Jake would keep her safe until he could return. And there was little time to spare.
A fiery jolt of pain shot through his right leg as he staggered to his feet. Grimacing, he limped to the edge of the roof and peered down through the dirty back window.
"Let me go!" Carly yelped, squirming in the Sultan's fierce grip. "Let me go!"
If only she could slow him down somehow! But how could she manage that, when she was floating several inches off the ground?
The angry mutant viciously tightened his grip on her throat, cutting off her breath. Carly gritted her teeth and struggled to penetrate his mental shield. There must be a way to break through!
"Looks to me like you need to learn some manners!"
Wolverine's hoarse, angry voice abruptly echoed through the trees. Then he somersaulted through the air and landed several paces in front of them. His razor-sharp claws glittered in the sun-streaked light as he stalked forward, his black eyes slitted with open hatred.
The Sultan instinctively moved back. Ignoring the blood dripping from his injured hand, he jammed an energy pistol against Carly's ribs. "I was wondering when you'd finally show up!" he sneered. "Looks like you're slowing down, old man!"
Wolverine's lips curled in a fierce snarl. "I ain't too old to whip an impudent little punk like you!" he grated. "Sure looks like your taste in friends hasn't improved any!" he added, scornfully tilting his head back toward the clearing. "Still hangin' around with pond slime!"
The Sultan's eyes narrowed. "At least I'm not a boot-licker like you! Your precious Xavier makes me sick, the way he's always sucking up to those pitiful humans!"
Wolverine's cold fury was so overpowering that Carly could nearly taste it! She threw up a barrier to protect herself--then hesitated. Something else was there, beneath the hatred and blood-lust. Something...an urging...
Suddenly she understood!
Wolverine was deliberately baiting the Sultan, trying to distract him!
Galvanized, she jabbed her elbow into his ribs with all her strength. The Sultan staggered back against a tree, forgetting the laser pistol as he clutched at his aching side.
It was just what Wolverine had been waiting for! Snarling, he launched himself across the intervening space, his claws extended.
The Sultan yelped and stumbled back again. Carly tumbled to the ground as he lost his mental grip on her. She caught a brief glimpse of black and yellow soaring over her head. Then Wolverine's fierce war cry split the air as he crashed into the Sultan and sent him flying.
Before she could move, the thick vines suddenly parted and fell away. A large, sturdy hand lifted her to her feet. Startled, she stared up at Jake in wondering surprise.
The big lumberjack shoved her toward the long equipment shed. "G'wan, get hidden!" he ordered, tucking his long knife back into its fringed leather sheath. "Hurry!"
Carly defiantly shook her head. "Hank needs me!" she insisted, pointing toward the storehouse. "Jake, please!" It was easier, now, to influence his emotions as she laid a coaxing hand on his arm. His resistance melted away almost immediately.
Frustrated, he hustled her back toward the big boulder where his men were waiting. "C'mon, then, but keep your head down!"
The clearing was a frenzy of activity. Carly stared in fascination as the beautiful white-haired flier spread her hands wide, and blinding bolts of lightning crackled from her fingertips. A thick, heavy fog instantly rolled through the undergrowth and across the ground. The laser bolts cast an eerie glow through the air as they lanced back and forth.
Now, though, the X-Men were moving under cover of the damp, billowing haze. Brilliant energy globes erupted from the mist as the youngest girl rolled and dodged from place to place. The tall Southerner was hurling glowing objects at the cabin. And the other tall one, with the red visor across his eyes, was firing at the open windows.
Did they all use light-energy as a weapon?
No, because that other girl, the one dressed in bright green, wasn't fighting that way. She was flying up over the storehouse, toward...
Carly jumped up as she finally caught sight of the blue-furred scientist up on the steep roof.
Jake yanked her back down just before another laser blast whistled past her head. "I told you, keep your head down!" he insisted. "Nothin' you can do from here, anyway! And don't you try sneakin' off again, you hear me?"
Carly barely even heard him. Everything was happening so quickly...
What could she do? How could she help?
Wolverine! He was still fighting the Sultan!
She quickly spun back around. Maybe now, while he was distracted, she could penetrate the Sultan's psychic shield! If she could find out what his secret fears were, maybe she could use them against him!
"Looks like I ain't slowin' down that much!" Wolverine retorted as he grimly advanced on the Sultan. "Whatsa matter, pond slime? Not so brave without a hostage, are ya?"
A huge tree branch suddenly whistled through the air. Wolverine spun around and slashed it into pieces, then took another step forward. "Is that the best you can do?" he taunted. "I always knew you didn't have any imagination!"
Enraged, the Sultan launched several more heavy objects at the wiry little Canadian. "Try to cut your way out of this!" he sneered, retreating again.
Behind Wolverine, a large oak tree shuddered and began to topple. Carly's frantic scream made him whirl around.
He hurled himself to one side...
...but it was already too late!
The huge tree came crashing down where he'd just been standing!
Dust flew, half-choking Carly, as she threw off Jake's hand and dashed toward the quivering tree.
He couldn't be dead...he couldn't!
In a corner of her mind, she half-sensed the Sultan sneaking up behind her. She recklessly ignored him. Wolverine was still alive, she could feel it! She had to help him!
A flash of yellow caught her eye. Carly bravely reached through the tossing branches and grabbed at Wolverine's hand. His wiry fingers closed over hers.
Come on, come on! she silently chanted, her body trembling as she struggled to penetrate his groggy mind. You can do it! You have to!
"Gotcha!" The Sultan's triumphant shout echoed through the air as he snatched at Carly's bare arm.
Screaming, she ducked...just as Wolverine lunged through the clinging branches, his claws glittering. Time seemed to freeze for one breathless moment as he soared over her head...
The Sultan yelped and stumbled back again. Hot sparks exploded from the heavy pendant around his neck as Wolverine's deadly talons sliced into it and cast it aside. Fiery energy sparkled as it flew through the air, glittering in a stray beam of sunlight.
The Sultan threw himself after it, incoherently yelling...
To be continued...