"Games Mutants Play"

Chapter 1

           Morph loved to make a dramatic entrance.
           It was childish of him, perhaps--he'd be the first to admit that. But the pleased shock and surprise on his teammates' faces tickled the mischievous side of his complex personality.
           And the news he was carrying today deserved something special!
           Professor Xavier and Jean were sure to sense him approaching--he'd never managed to mask his distinctive thought patterns from them!  He hoped they'd pick up on his excitement, too, and let him spring this surprise in his own way. He'd worked hard enough for it!
           At this hour, everyone should just be sitting down to dinner--he'd save time by entering through the front doors, instead of winding his way upstairs from the big hangar bay.
           Thick grass rustled beneath his mini-jet as he landed precisely in the center of the wide courtyard. Eyes gleaming, he launched himself out of the cockpit and dropped to the ground. He hadn't even taken the time to clean up on his return trip. Well, that would simply add weight to his fantastic story!
           The large front doors were unlocked--anyone capable of passing Xavier's sophisticated security systems without challenge was welcome in the mansion.
           But the dining room was empty!
           Morph hesitated in the doorway, glancing around. Where was everyone?
           Bewildered, he made his way through the wide hallway on silent feet. Could something new have happened? He'd better check in the War Room first, just in case.
           The sudden, distinctive sound of a muted explosion made his eyes widen. The Danger Room! Someone was hurt!
           Human feet were too slow...his teammates needed him now! And his long recuperation at Muir Island was about to provide an unexpected bonus. He'd seen Xavier's one-time lover, Amelia Volt, phase herself into mist and teleport through the walls often enough to duplicate the trick. It wouldn't be the first time he'd assumed a woman's body...
           Shift, realign, brown eyes melding into green, long red hair pulled back in a gold-trimmed clip, phase into mist and go...
           A crack in the baseboards was all the space he needed. Red-hued with urgency, he flowed down into the floor and made his way through myriad wires and tubing with startling speed. Three seconds, four, five...
           There!  The Danger Room was directly in front of him!
           Yet...voices were coming from Xavier's Ready Room!  He was sure he could hear Beast's distinctive timbre through the sturdy walls!
           Morph hesitated for the barest fraction of an instant, uncertain. The crisp, clear tone of Xavier's voice decided him. Whatever the danger, he must protect his beloved mentor!
           A nearby vent beckoned. Morph flowed through it and rapidly realigned his internal structure.
           Eight pairs of eyes stared in stunned disbelief as 'Amelia' abruptly materialized in the large room, then shifted back into Morph's familiar form.
           "Morph!" Jean was the first to react. Grinning with delight, she waved toward the nearest empty chair. "Come join us--we were just reviewing today's training tapes!"
           Now he could see the vivid holographic images covering the far wall.
           There was no danger?
           Relieved, Morph sagged down beside her and managed a weak smile. Well, he'd gotten his dramatic entrance after all, just not the way he'd originally planned!
           "It appears," Beast remarked with a wry grin, "that we should consider cleaning between the floors as well as above them!" And he gestured at the smudges of dirt staining Morph's worn uniform.
           An amused grin curved the younger mutant's lips. "Oh, I don't think you oughta waste your time on that," he countered in a deceptively meek voice.
           Jean caught a trace of his barely-concealed excitement, and straightened. "You found something, Morph?" she urged, her slanting green eyes widening.
           Morph lifted one thin shoulder in a nonchalant shrug, then relented and let the eager sparkle brighten his own eyes again. "I know where Sinister's hideout is!" he exclaimed.
           Then he sobered. "And he's definitely got the portal! If we're gonna stop him, we'd better move fast!"
           Now he had everyone's attention!  How he wished Wolverine was here, to share in his moment of triumph!
           Xavier raised his hands to quell the instant clamor as everyone tried to question Morph at the same time. But the talented young mutant didn't mind--he'd finally done something right for the team, and it felt good! Relaxing, he avidly explained how he'd followed Banshee's hunch, and set up a clandestine surveillance on Emma Frost's remote lair.
           "I knew she'd be on the alert, because everyone felt it when Kevin activated the portal!" he confessed. "Even me, and I'm not a telepath! So I changed myself into a raven, and perched in a nearby tree to keep an eye on things!"
           Banshee's green eyes narrowed in appreciation. "A raven, eh? Aye, ye're not one t' do things by half measures, are ye, me lad?"
           Nightcrawler raised a curious eyebrow, puzzled by Banshee's cryptic approval. "I do not underztand, my friend," he protested. "Vat iz zo zpecial about a raven?"
           "According to ancient Celtic mythology," Beast helpfully explained, "ravens were gifted with mystical powers. They carried the spirits of departed humans, and communed with the gods themselves. As they were believed to carry good luck, they were never harmed."
           "Aye," Banshee nodded. "An' fer all th' white witch's other faults, she grew up with th' old ways an' still keeps 'em sacred. Ye couldn't've chosen better, Morph me boy, if ye'd tried!"
           Morph glowed with pride. He was finally in control of his own life again! Even Professor Xavier was radiating approval!
           "Well," he eagerly continued, "it sure paid off! I got close enough to see when Sinister's thugs suddenly appeared out of that temporal warp thing they carry around. They grabbed her before she could even yell for help, and vanished again."
           Cyclops leaned forward, intrigued. "So how did you track them?" he challenged.
           Morph spared the tall, arrogant team leader a condescending grin. "They were too busy struggling with her to notice me! So I flew by and dropped one of Beast's transparent trackers on her shoulder!
           "And you wouldn't believe where they're holed up this time!" He rolled his coffee-brown eyes in exasperation. "Right in the heart of the African jungle! About as far away from civilization as you can get without a roadmap!"
           The frozen hologram on the far wall vanished as Xavier telepathically linked with Cerebro and summoned up a large multicolored satellite scan. "They must be shielding themselves somehow," he murmured as the view changed several times, bisecting the huge continent with increasingly higher resolution. "I cannot pick up any traces of mutant activity or the portal's unique energy signature."
           "But look!" Jean exclaimed, pointing as thick forests became visible. "There's Beast's tracker, right in the heart of the black jungle! Well done, Morph!"
           The young mutant beamed with pleasure...until he saw the anxious frown on his mentor's austere face. "What's the matter, Professor?" he urged. "Did I do something wrong?"
           Xavier quickly shook his head. "No, Morph. You did an excellent job. But I am concerned about Emma Frost's involvement in this scenario. Her presence indicates that Sinister has discovered more about the portal than I would have preferred. If she focuses her energies through it, our own objectives may be in grave jeopardy."
           The assembled mutants stared at him in growing horror. "You don't think she'd dare try to infiltrate Cerebro again, do you?" Cyclops challenged.  Beside him, Jean shivered as she recalled being overwhelmed by the alien Phoenix entity. Frost's devious scheming had nearly destroyed them all!
           "If she is able to access my accumulated research on the portal itself," Beast protested, "no force on Earth will be able to stop them!"
           Xavier's clear blue eyes seemed haunted as he faced each one of them in turn.  "Agreed.  That is why I am about to propose a very unusual solution..."

• • • • •

           "Get your filthy hands off me!"
           Emma Frost's enraged protest only made Jorge chuckle. "Ah, don' ye worry none, gal," he advised, his crisp Australian brogue deepening as he deliberately tightened his grip on her slender arm. "We ain't gonna hurt you! Or git your purty white clothes all dirty--long as ye don' fight us!"
           "Yeah," Ruckus grinned, leering down at her. "You've been downright rude, ignoring our nice polite offer to come visit! Got a regular little housewarming party going--everyone's invited! C'mon in and join us!"
           Emma felt dwarfed as the two huge mutants dragged her through the mouth of a dark, eerie cave. Dwarfed, and infuriated! Their minds were easy enough to penetrate...she'd never have been caught like this if she could have sensed them approaching! Trust them to sneak around with a temporal warp--that was so characteristic of Sinister's double-crossing tactics!
           How she would love to pierce their shallow minds with pure, unadulterated pain, and see them writhing on the ground like mindless animals! That would be fitting payment for having kidnaped her! But she could sense the presence of many other mutants just inside--mutants who might not take kindly to her assault, no matter how justified it might seem to her!
           And Sinister was sure to take offense...these two big oafs were his favored pets. Which just proved what terrible judgement he had!
           Darkness surrounded her as she was pulled into the large, dank cavern. Sinister's blood-red eyes seemed to glow with malevolent delight from the rustling shadows. Then Jorge shoved her forward, into the lurid greenish glow lighting the far end over the cavern.
           Too many...there were far too many mutants here for her to control! For now, like it or not, she would have to play along with their evil schemes.
           And perhaps...
           Well, she thoughtfully conceded, perhaps there might be something to gain from such an unholy alliance, after all!
           Straightening, she threw off her escorts' large hands and stepped forward. "You summoned me, Sinister?" she demanded, her low voice cool with displeasure.
           Sinister gazed down at Emma Frost with undisguised malice. Let her play the affronted victim if she chose! She was no match for his power or his cunning mind!
           He allowed her another moment to scan the cavern, noting how her eyes widened or narrowed with each new face she spied through the dim shadows. None of her former teammates were present--he had seen to it that she had no ready-made allies. All the better to weaken her, make her more vulnerable.
           Yet he felt a moment's unease when her cold eyes hesitated on Deadpool's distinctive black mask. And the ninja assassin's head dipped ever-so-slightly in acknowledgment. Was she telepathically contacting him, or did they share some murky past which he had been unable to discover?
           He swept one gloved hand out in an abrupt gesture that startled her back to awareness. Deadpool would bear careful scrutiny. But for now, Sinister had little time to waste.
           "Behold our deliverance from this backwater planet!" he hissed, waving toward the darkened portal. "The entire universe lies at our feet, ready to be taken! With your assistance, my beautiful ice queen, together we shall rule as we choose, with plenty for all!"
           Emma ignored his devious compliment, and stared at the dormant hexagonal device in open suspicion. This was the cause of so much furor? True, its intricate carvings did look fascinating. Yet what unique capabilities made it so spectacular...and so coveted by so many powerful mutants?
           Emboldened by Sinister's inviting gesture, she took a cautious step closer. And narrowed her eyes in sudden confusion. The faintest trace of a milky, opalescent glow seemed visible deep within the portal's six uniform sides. Had her approach triggered some obscure mechanism, or had she simply not noticed that slow, hypnotic swirling before now?
           "What do you need from me?" she demanded, tearing her eyes away from the mesmerizing shimmer with an effort. It could not be calling to her, whispering to her innermost psyche with a muted longing that tugged at her very heartstrings...
           Sinister's fangs gleamed in the dim light as he swept into an angry, mocking bow and glared at the alien device. "Xavier holds the key," he snarled. "Only he knows the secret to fully activate its power! You were able to infiltrate his defenses once before. Do so again--wrest the information from his cowardly mind--and I will give you first pick of the many worlds beyond the portal's door!"
           Emma considered her dilemma for one brief instant, and found the alternatives unpleasant.
           Still, this overgrown vampire had no concept of the difficulties involved! "I cannot simply present myself at Xavier's gates and request access to his supercomputer!" she retorted, scowling up at him. "The circumstances you speak of were unique! Jason Wyngarde and I telepathically merged and infiltrated Xavier's defenses together, using the Inner Circle's mega-computer as the power focus!  No one but Xavier himself has the power to penetrate Cerebro unaided!"
           Sinister's spidery cape billowed as he stiffened to his full height. Despite herself, Emma shuddered. She had seen genetic mutations cause unspeakable horrors, but never before had she set eyes on any creature so ugly, so malevolent, that the hair on her neck prickled in mute warning!
           "Do you refuse me?" Sinister rasped, his deep voice echoing through the large cavern. Behind them, Emma heard the other mutants stirring as they watched the tense confrontation with avid enthusiasm.
           None of them, with the possible exception of Deadpool, owed her the slightest allegiance. If she refused Sinister, they might well turn on her. Like it or not, she would have to comply with his arrogant demands...for now.
           "Of course not, Sinister," she assured him, mustering a soothing smile. "I simply fear that I may not be powerful enough to aid you!"
           Her apparent complaisance settled him again, and he smirked in satisfaction. "Your powers have increased since you battled the Phoenix," he insisted. "Your psychic strength is second only to Xavier himself! And the portal itself can be used as a power focus. I have been able to trigger it into partial readiness--surely you can do no less!"
           It was an order that she dared not refuse. Sighing, Emma took another step toward the massive artifact. The eerie glow seemed to intensify as she approached. "Very well. But it will take me some time to penetrate Cerebro's defenses," she warned, lifting slender fingers to her pale forehead. "If Xavier or his students should detect my efforts, they will..."
           "We do not have time!" Sinister snarled, clenching his fists. "I have waited too long for this moment--I will not have it denied!"
           Damned egotistical monster, why couldn't he understand that this was a delicate operation?
           Emma sighed again, and concentrated harder. First she must establish a rapport with this bizarre alien device. Adjusting her thought processes to the Inner Circle's massive computer-entity had not been difficult--she had helped design its unique pathways by merging with its newly-formed sentience over a decade ago.
           Yet if the rumors about his hexagonal device were accurate, it had existed long before humans had walked the face of this planet! Despite its deep-seated, alluring siren-song, she had so little chance of merging with it that she might as well resign herself to a painful death now...
           Power!  Incredible, unimaginable power!
           Shaken, Emma staggered back and stared in wondering disbelief at the shimmering portal.
           Glowing, pulsating light was all around her, penetrating the deepest corners of her expanding mind...
           From somewhere in the distance, she heard a hoarse voice whispering, "O' course! Takes a telepath t' trigger the thing! No wonder..."
           Then everything faded away but the light--the glorious, dazzling beams of gold that enveloped her, warming her to the core with exquisite beauty and energy...
           And amid the silvery starsongs that flooded her very soul, one compelling thought remained:   Sinister must not be allowed to misuse this miraculous gateway to the universe!
           He was already moving up behind her, advancing on the device like a hungry spider stalking its prey. She must stall him somehow!
           "Wait!"   Her low voice rang out with startling power as the last darkened recesses of her mind were flooded with crystal-clear light. She was growing, expanding...glowing with unimaginable power!  "I must learn Xavier's secrets before the portal can be fully controlled!"
           Sinister hesitated for one brief instant, then defiantly took another step forward. "There is no time!" he argued, his face twisted into a hideous snarl. "We must go through now!"
           Emma slowly turned to face him, her eyes aglow with an eerie, unearthly light. "You will wait!" she proclaimed in cold, measured tones.
           Time...she needed more time! With every passing moment, she was growing stronger, strong enough to bring that malevolent nightmare to his black-clad knees! Stalling, she cast her mind outward, searching for the familiar mental touch of Xavier and his sentient supercomputer...
           They were gone!
           Stunned, she reeled backwards.
           Surely there must be some mistake--Cerebro could not simply have vanished! Yet nothing remained of Xavier's massive complex but a huge, smoking hole!  What incredible calamity could have wiped out the entire X-Team without a trace?
           "What do you mean, 'they're gone'?" Sinister demanded, his voice harsh with shock. "That is impossible!"
           Without realizing it, she must have forced a psychic link with every mutant in the cavern--she could even sense Creed's floundering thoughts on the verge of her consciousness!  Pitiful human...but even he would have his own role to play...
           She ruthlessly impelled the newly-forged links to greater clarity, thrusting an appalling image of molten, smoking destruction into each of their minds. "Xavier and his team are gone!" she hissed. "The danger is over!"
           Yet...even as she spoke, she could feel a gathering inside the portal, unbelievable power surging, growing, nearing...
           "Look out!"
           Her frantic cry echoed through the chamber only an instant before the entire universe exploded around her. And she was falling into darkness again...



Chapter 2

           So what if it was a trap? After being imprisoned in that damned crystalline cube for so long, he'd welcome an honest fight!
           Unimaginable noise and light assaulted Wolverine's hyper-acute senses as he plunged through the glowing portal.
           Ride with it...stay calm...get ready...
           "Now!" A fierce, primal battle cry escaped him as he hurtled through the far side and lunged at the first body to block his path.
           Black mask and body suit...gleam of barely concealed weapons...
           Deadpool!  What was that little maggot doing here?
           Snarling, Wolverine slashed at the ninja's huge laser pistol. His razor-sharp claws lacerated and threw it aside before the startled assassin could fire a single shot.
           As he spun away, he caught the barest glimpse of Proteus charging headlong into the fray, and the shocked look on Omega Red's angular white face. Gutsy kid, phasing the Russian's deadly tentacles into hissing cobras! Let 'em attack their owner for a change!
           Suddenly the cavern seemed full of shouting mutants--Sinister's so-called 'elite force' was scattering in panic as he and his teammates spread out into a wide defensive pattern.
           Well, let 'em run, he scoffed. That'd only make it easier for the X-Men to bring 'em down!
           He leaped aside, nearly tripping over Emma Frost's prone body, as Deadpool tried to pepper him with tiny adamantium-tipped shuriken. One of the lethal projectiles slashed through his shoulder, and he hissed in pain. Yet even before he'd regained his footing and launched into another wild charge, the bleeding had stopped and the sharp, stabbing pain had faded. Chalk up another miraculous recovery to his body's regenerative powers--he'd have been dead a thousand times over without 'em!
           "Take more'n that to slow me down, karate kid!" he taunted, feinting to one side and then sweeping his legs into a tight circle to trip the other mutant. "Whatsa matter, buddy boy--gettin' old under that ugly mask?"

• • • • •

           Jubilee hesitated only long enough to make sure that Wolverine wasn't seriously hurt--she'd seen what those nasty little death-stars could do! Reassured, she scanned the cavern for a good target of her own. Rogue was already spiraling in intricate circles around Juggernaut's massive armored head, and she'd only get in Gambit's way if she tried to distract Sabertooth!
           Was it really true, she briefly wondered, that the tawny-maned giant had killed one of Gambit's old girlfriends, way back when he was still with the Thieves' Guild? No wonder he was so furious--he had a real score to settle! Just like she would, if anything ever happened to Kevin!
           Black Tom!   Good thing Banshee wasn't here to see what kind of lowlife snake his younger brother had become--the cowardly little wimp was trying to sneak out of the cave! Well, she'd just see about that!  Grinning, Jubilee darted across the dirt floor, palms outstretched.

• • • • •

           "Storm!" Rogue's clear voice rang above the din as their elegant team leader hovered above the portal, anxiously surveying the confused bedlam. "Try t' call P'fessor Xavier an' Jean! They're gonna wanta get in on this action!"
           And despite Rogue's cheery tone, Storm reluctantly conceded, there was no denying that they were badly outnumbered, and in serious need of reinforcements! Galvanized, the white-clad Egyptian princess soared for the beckoning entryway.
           "Not so fast!" A low, sultry voice echoed in Storm's ears as an ominously familiar figure slunk out of the shadows, fingers spread wide. "You're getting dizzy...very dizzy! Your mind is mine to control!"
           Vertigo!
           Storm quickly shut her eyes, but it was too late--the entire world was spinning, whirling around her in sickening patterns. She must fight...must fight...
           Then the rocky wall reached out to smash into her shoulder, and she slumped to the floor with a cry of pain.
           Brute strength was not the solution--she must use cunning to overcome this evil mutant's treacherous powers! Yet it took every ounce of willpower to cease struggling against her own bewildered senses, and feign unconsciousness.
           Through barely slitted eyes, she saw Vertigo approach. A slender boot nudged at her ribs, half-rolling her over. Storm forced her body to remain limp, sprawled in the dirt.
           Vertigo kicked her again, hard enough to bruise her ribs. Storm stubbornly held her silence.
           Finally, satisfied that her victim was truly unconscious, Vertigo tossed long white-blonde hair over her shoulder and stalked back into the center of the cave.
           Storm suppressed a triumphant laugh. Simpleminded fool, turning her back on an enemy! It would be so simple to hurl a single lightning bolt at the woman's unprotected back...
           Yet that would not be worthy of Professor Xavier's training. And at the moment, she was in a position to do Sinister's band of ruffians much greater damage. Keeping a careful eye on the nearest combatants, she cautiously slid one hand up across her chest and pressed the circular communit button on her dirty white flightsuit.
           Wherever the Professor was, he would instantly receive her signal and know that she had returned...and
the X-Men would home in on Sinister's dark lair.

• • • • •

           "I'm tellin' ye, I don' like it!" Jorge protested as he stretched his flexible black body up to peer over the thick treetops. His crisp Australian accent drifted back down through the dark, heavy foliage like an eerie echo. "I got a real bad feelin' 'bout this!"
           Ruckus tossed his long white-blond hair aside and waved one hand in an impatient gesture. "Ah, you worry too much!" he grumbled. "So what if she does get first pick? Sinister's not gonna leave us out--he needs us!"
           A wry grin curved his lips as he settled back against a tree trunk, arms lazily folded behind his head. "Who else would he find to do his dirty work?" he pointed out. "We ain't got it so bad, ya know."
           Jorge shrank back down enough to toss him a disgusted glare. "Sure, if ye don't mind sharin' yer bed with them stinkin' monkeys an' creepy-crawlies! Thought I'd left that kinda vermin backabeyond!
           "An' I don' trust her none, either!" he added, scowling. "Thought she was gonna melt us int' a puddle or sump'n just fer darin' t' touch 'er!"
           Ruckus laughed aloud. "She's a feisty one, all right!" he exclaimed. "I reckon maybe even Sinister's met his match this time!"
           A primal, bloodcurdling howl suddenly echoed from the darkened cave. The two gangly mutants froze in startled shock for one brief moment, then leaped forward. "I knew she couldn' be trusted!" Jorge snarled as he flowed forward ahead of his partner in a tarry black wave. "C'mon!"
           They'd expected a fight--there was no mistaking that distinctive clashing of weapons. Yet neither of them were prepared for the sight that met their eyes when they charged into the main cavern.
           The X-Men! Where had they come from?
           They hesitated, staring in shocked disbelief, at the chaotic scene. Avalanche and Deadpool were ganging up on Wolverine...
           That insipid, overgrown Blob was trying to squash the lanky Cajun mutant, Gambit, with his immense, lardy body...
           Sinister himself was defending Juggernaut by firing deadly glowing energy beams at Rogue...
           Ruckus and Jorge blinked at each other, bewildered. How could those obnoxious do-gooder mutants have gotten past them?
           Sinister's outraged bellow spurred them into motion again. Jorge raced toward Emma Frost, who was just stirring--and in serious danger of being trampled by Sabertooth!
           Ruckus headed in the other direction. That impudent little teenager, Jubilee, was trying to corner Black Tom--well, he'd just see about that!

• • • • •

           "Well, well, now--what 'ave we 'ere?"  Pyro's high-pitched, mocking voice rang entirely too close to Storm's ears for comfort. "Al'ays hit 'em when they're down, 'at's what I say!"
           Storm hastily abandoned her feigned unconsciousness and launched herself into the air--a scant instant before Pyro's raging gout of living fire enveloped the spot where she'd been laying. Deadly flames pursued her through the air, snatching at her elegant cape with savage claws.
           She instantly spun in a tight aerial circle. "Rains, quench this unholy fire!" she cried, summoning a quick downpour. "Perhaps the arctic cold will subdue your enthusiasm for mayhem!" And before the shocked little Brit could dart away, she encased him in a torrent of icy sleet.

• • • • •

           Omega Red was having his own problems--no matter what tactics he chose, that brazen Irish monster was one step ahead of him!
           Lash at the grinning youth with his coils, and they suddenly became venomous cobras.  Electrocute the cobras, and the ground beneath his feet melted into a treacherous lava-filled pit.  Hurl himself to one side, and Sinister's tree roots came alive, seeking to entrap him!
           Enough was enough!   That ugly black tar-mutant was just lifting the little telepath to her feet--they would serve as admirable bait until he could strike out with some degree of success!
           He sidestepped once, twice, and around Avalanche's bulky frame...
           There!  Let the cocky teenager strike a woman--if he could muster the courage!
           Proteus narrowed his glowing slash-eyes as Omega Red's treacherous tactics became clear. Now he was facing three opponents--and one of them was an immensely powerful telepath. If she penetrated his mind, she could turn his reality shifts against him and his teammates.
           He instinctively reached for his mentor's powerful psyche as a buffer--then grimly shook his head, and reached deeper inside his own soul for strength. Regardless of what genetic ties they might share, Professor Xavier could not help him in this situation.
           He'd have to face his destiny like a man, not a frightened child.

• • • • •

           Emma was still so dazed by the portal's brilliant explosion of light and sound that she barely even noticed the mayhem around her. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined such limitless power! For one brief moment, she had become the entire universe, become the essence of all life-force itself!
           The minds around her were closed now, shut off in desperate concentration... fighting for their lives? Startled, she glanced around with new awareness, noticing the frantic struggles around her for the first time.
           The X-Men!
           Of course--that final surge of power must have carried them back from the far reaches of the galaxy!
           Which meant that they must have a telepath with them!
           With unerring precision, her questing mind focused on the huge glowing creature facing her.
           So this was Proteus, Xavier's formidable son!
           Her equal in strength, perhaps...but not in cunning.
           A grim smile curved her lips as she prepared her first attack.

• • • • •

           It was all happening so fast!
           Mystique stared in wondering disbelief as Rogue darted to one side, nimbly evading Sinister's glowing energy blasts.   The deadly discharges shattered a section of the sloping roof, and a heavy stalactite smashed onto Juggernaut's massive head.
           Despite herself, she winced as the brawny giant staggered.  Good thing that helmet was impervious to damage!
           Avalanche was trying to shake Wolverine's concentration along with a wide section of the floor...but the wiry little Canadian was quicker than either of his angry opponents.  Deadpool stumbled and nearly fell as the ground beneath his feet splintered.  Mystique briefly wondered if he might launch a salvo of weapons at Avalanche in retaliation for his clumsiness!
           She backed a few steps deeper into the shadows to avoid notice.  Rogue could handle herself, and she had no real quarrel with the X-Men right now.
           Somehow, for this one encounter, she found herself honor-bound to protect young Creed.  He was here under duress--and he'd already endured far too much abuse at Sabertooth's expense.  Those healing bruises spoke of violent beatings that she wouldn't have wished on her worst enemy...let alone her own son, mutant-hater though he might be.
           She watched in reluctant fascination as Sabertooth launched himself at Gambit, claws extended. The tawny-maned giant really was magnificent in action. Too bad he wasn't as intelligent as his adversary...Gambit simply ducked and rolled across the stony floor, leaving Sabertooth to smash into Blob's massive stomach and rebound like a child's toy.
           Though it irked her to admit it, Rogue could have done a lot worse than to marry the wily Cajun thief.  She had been oddly touched at their wedding...not that anyone had realized she was nearby.   She'd morphed herself into a small bird and perched on the outer fence, warbling a sweet song, during the lovely outdoor ceremony.
           Despite deep-seated bitterness at losing her beautiful daughter for good, she'd realized an odd sense of peace in knowing that the girl was finally happy.
           You're going soft, Raven, she bitterly chided herself. First Kurt, then Rogue, and now this miserable excuse for a human...
           But like it or not, Creed was her son. She owed him her protection. Maybe it would even help prove to him that not all mutants were inherently evil.
           A wry grin curved her lips at the very thought. After everything he'd done to make her life a living hell, that would be the final irony...

           "Take that, ya big bully!" Jubilee yelled.
           Dazzling plasma globes exploded only inches from Ruckus's head, startling him.
           Before the gangly white-haired mutant could react, Black Tom swung his heavy staff in her direction. She just barely managed to leap aside as a thick burst of energy exploded from the tip and shattered the rock behind her.
           "Hey, that's not fair!" she yelped. "Why don'tcha..."
           Wavering shadows in the cave entrance made her stifle a heartfelt groan. Just what they needed--more of Sinister's goons! Weren't they already outnumbered enough?
           Then a glowing shaft of red energy lanced through the gloom, and her black eyes widened in delight.
           Cyclops!
           The X-Men were finally here!

• • • • •

           Sinister!
           A grim smile curved Cyclops's lips as he caught sight of his black-caped enemy firing up at Rogue. He'd been waiting a long time for this! Triumphant, he slapped at the corner of his visor, and a brilliant laser bolt shot across the cave...
           ...just as Omega Red stumbled into his path! Cyclops scowled as the lethal energy splashed off the huge Russian's impenetrable carbonadium armor. "Dammit, I missed!" he muttered.
           His teammates were already spreading out, picking their opponents. Trust Jean to throw herself into the fray right behind him...how he loved her indominable courage!
           And her cleverness, in raising a psychokinetic shield around Ruckus just before he could launch one of his earth-shaking yells! The big mutant's agonized grimace as he sank to his knees, clutching his ears, was worth any risk!
           Morph's infectious laughter echoed in his ears as the younger mutant threw Jean an enthusiastic thumbs-up. "He can dish it out, but he sure can't take it, can he?" he sneered.
           By now, the rest of Sinister's motley band was reacting, spreading out to meet their challenge. And they looked about evenly matched.
           Good! It'd be more of a fair challenge that way!
           Grinning, Cyclops stalked into the cave.




To be continued.....