"When the Hunter Becomes the Prey"
Ilyana was bored.
She had envisioned such wonderful things when Piotr had described living in America! Riding in the park, early-morning cartoons, baseball games...hot dogs!
Yet she was cooped up in this big old mansion, unable to roam further than the apple groves, because Professor Xavier was afraid that someone might penetrate his defensive perimeter and attack them. This was not how she had envisioned her marvelous adventure!
Scowling, she kicked at a speck of dirt in the thick carpet. The mansion was beautiful, and she loved the sprawling yards and big swimming pool... But she wanted to explore! She wanted to see more of this marvelous country than just one isolated estate! How she yearned to escape for the day, hitchhike to the city, see the cars and the trains and all the people...
Then a heavy sigh escaped her. Even if she managed to elude the Professor's watchful gaze, she was too small to go very far on her own. If only she could fly, like Jean! Then nothing could hold her back!
But if she ran away, she would shame Piotr, and bring dishonor to him. And then Professor Xavier would never agree to train her when her mutant abilities began to develop.
A high, oak-paneled door along one wall caught her attention, and she curiously pushed it open. She had never been in this room before...
Then her blue eyes widened as she stared around in awed wonder. Books! Thousands upon thousands of books! Surely every book in the world must be resting on those immense shelves!
Her small feet moved of their own volition, scurrying toward the nearest cases. Down here was world history, and on the next shelf were a cluster of books on medieval art. And over there was a section on model rocketry! She'd never seen such an incredible collection in her entire life!
"I am glad that you approve, Ilyana!"
She whirled around in surprise as Xavier himself glided into the large room, a warm smile brightening his austere face. "I have always loved to read--after I lost the use of my legs, it was one of my favorite pastimes," he confided, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder. "What kind of stories appeal most to you, child?"
Ilyana swallowed, overwhelmed by his curiosity. Ever since she and Piotr had arrived, he had seemed so distant and stern! She was trying to behave herself, trying to act like a lady...but it was so difficult when there was so much to see, and so many places she was not allowed to go!
"Perhaps you would enjoy this," he continued, levitating up to one of the top shelves and retrieving a very old, worn volume of stories. "I know you will take good care of it."
Ilyana's eyes widened again as he dropped back down and solemnly offered her the large book. It seemed to quiver in her hands, vibrating with energy, as the soft leather binding crackled against her sensitive fingertips. Entranced, she stared at the intricate artwork for several long seconds.
Then her small shoulders fell in disappointment. "But it is written in English!" she sighed. "Piotr has taught me to speak your language--but I do not know how to read it!"
An odd smile quirked at the corners of Xavier's mouth. "Then I will give you a special gift," he murmured, laying his hands on either side of her face. "Come with me into my mind, Ilyana, and learn what you will need to know."
Like a whirling vortex, she felt herself being pulled into--some other place, some other time. Before she could blink or muster a frightened protest, she was standing beside a young boy on a large, grassy lawn.
Outside Xavier's mansion? But how could that be? She had been inside the library!
A beautiful woman was approaching them, her auburn hair pulled back into an elegant chignon. "Here you are, Charles!" she exclaimed, smiling. "I have a special present for you!"
A large leather-bound book... Ilyana felt a cold mass of shivers, like prickling needles, run up and down her spine.
"Mother!" The boy ran forward and hugged her, then turned and eagerly gestured at Ilyana. "This is my friend, Mother. May she read the book, too?"
The woman's warm, loving smile brought tears of joy to Ilyana's eyes. "Of course she may, Charles. I know you will teach her everything you can, just as you have helped your other friends."
She pressed the ancient book into the boy's hands. "This belongs to you now, Charles. Take good care of it."
"Oh, I will!" he assured her, his eyes glowing with adoration. "I promise! Thank you, Mother!"
The woman was fading, fading...and then reality shivered around Ilyana and the handsome young boy. She was falling...
Xavier's large hand was warm under her elbow, supporting her. Blinking, Ilyana stared up at him in confusion. Had she imagined the warm sunlight, and the beautiful woman with the large brown eyes?
Yet the strange-looking letters on the book's cover suddenly made sense! "The Mysteries and Magicks of Merlin, Wizard of Camelot," she read, her voice ringing with excitement. "Professor, I can understand the words!"
Xavier stared down at Ilyana in silent disbelief for several moments. He had implanted the necessary knowledge into her young, pliable mind...but he had never expected her to join him on that lovely spring afternoon when his mother had opened his eyes to a much larger universe. More importantly, Ilyana had interacted in a world where she had not even existed! How was such a thing possible?
Now she was staring up at him again, bewildered. "This book belonged to your mother?" she slowly clarified. "It must be very valuable! Are you certain..."
What on earth had prompted him to select that particular book, of all the thousands that graced these long shelves?
Xavier believed in the mysterious workings of fate and destiny, but this young girl was beyond his understanding!
A shiver ran down his spine as he met her earnest gaze. "The book was meant for you, Ilyana," he murmured, shaking his head in numb confusion. "I have only been keeping it safe."
Something seemed to touch her awareness as she clutched it against her chest. "Thank you, Professor," she whispered, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. "I promise I will take good care of it!"
Before he could draw back, she pressed a grateful kiss against his cheek. Then she was gone, her light footsteps darting down the long hallway. Xavier stared after her for several moments, thoughtfully shaking his head, then slowly followed her from the room.
"Ah, here you are!"
Smiling, Beast ambled out onto the wide patio and settled himself into a chair near Ilyana's. She barely even noticed him--her entire attention was riveted on her fascinating new book. He hesitated a moment, surprised by such unswerving concentration, then added, "I was wondering if you might enjoy a brief workout in the Danger Room, but you appear to be quite entranced!"
Again Ilyana barely even seemed to hear him. His curiosity piqued, Beast peered at the book's worn title, and a new look of respect entered his deep-set blue eyes. "The Mysteries and Magicks of Merlin," he murmured. "I have not read that particular volume for many years! Wherever did you find such a well-preserved copy?"
Ilyana finally glanced up, her eyes gleaming with pleasure. "Professor Xavier's mother gave it to me!" she exclaimed. Then she scowled in frustration as she peered at the faded, elegant script. "Beast, what does prog...prognosticator mean?" she begged. "I do not understand that word!"
Professor Xavier's mother? Stunned, Beast stared at Ilyana in confusion for several seconds. Surely the child must be mistaken!
"A prognosticator is a soothsayer," he automatically replied, his mind whirling. "A magician. Anyone who can cast and control a magical spell."
Ilyana stared at the aging book with new interest. "I wish magicians really existed!" she exclaimed in a wistful tone. "It would be so much fun to control magic the way Merlin could!"
Beast hesitated, then lifted one large hand in a noncommittal gesture. "There are some mutants today who can cast spells for their own uses," he conceded. "Someday I will take you to meet 'Dr. Strange.' He is the most powerful magician currently in existence. And," he added with the barest trace of a smile, "he is stranger than most.
"I have had the opportunity to see him in action." Beast shook his head, perplexed. "I must confess, I do not understand how he can make objects or temporal warps appear from thin air. He is quite skillful in his craft!"
Ilyana jumped off the chair, clutching the large book in her arms. "Do you think that Merlin was a mutant?" she eagerly demanded.
Again Beast blinked, startled. "Perhaps he was, at that," he finally agreed. "I can think of no finer lineage for mutantkind."
Then he waved toward the western horizon. "Evening is approaching, and I find that a good workout before dinner stimulates my appetite. I would be honored if you would join me."
Ilyana briefly wavered. She would rather continue reading the fascinating book...but it was impossible to refuse Beast's polite request. Besides, her muscles were aching from sitting in one place for so long!
Smiling, she nodded and trustingly slipped her hand into his. "Perhaps later you will tell me more about this strange friend of yours?" she urged as she preceded him into the mansion again. "I would love to see him conjure up a temporal warp or a bouquet of flowers!"
"Very good, Ilyana!"
Beast launched himself over a low barrier and swung up into the rafters, deftly avoiding a vivid laser burst. In deference to the child's inexperience, most of the room's dangers were illusions, but she was not aware of that. She danced out of the way, panting for breath, as a huge saw blade slowly rotated in her direction. "As you gain confidence, you will find that you can leap on top of the weapon and escape before it changes course and follows you!"
Ilyana spared him only a brief nod; her eyes were already scanning the room for another trap. The Danger Room was well named, she grudgingly conceded as her surroundings suddenly changed. One moment she had been freezing in the Arctic Circle--now the blazing sun was burning her bare shoulders!
Colorful birds soared past, startling her. Was she in the fabled Amazon jungles now?
A huge snake abruptly dropped from an overhanging branch and hissed at her. Frightened, she backed away and bumped into a shaggy tree. How much more of this craziness would she have to endure--they must have been in here for hours now! And she was getting so tired--her arms and legs felt like heavy lead!
"Piotr, yah ustâlah!" she wailed, catching a quick glimpse of her large, muscular brother up in the distant control room. "Butyê dabri..."
The tanned Russian instantly turned to Xavier, an anxious frown marring his handsome face. "She is getting very tired, Professor," he appealed. "How much longer must she practice?"
Xavier leaned forward and triggered the chamber's intercom. "There is much more to being an X-Man than having a special talent, Ilyana," he urged, silently willing the young girl to draw more deeply on her inner reserves. "You must learn strength, agility, discipline. You must keep fighting even when your body cries for rest, because the lives of your teammates may depend upon you!"
Beast hooked his feet around a large tree branch and leaned down, reaching for her small hands. "Perhaps you will be safer up here!" he offered, swinging her up beside him. "Remember to rest whenever you see the opportunity, but never at the expense of your teammates. And even at rest, you must be vigilant. Danger could threaten one of your teammates, and you must be ready to respond at an instant's notice."
Ilyana nodded a second time. There was so much to learn! And she was so tired...her damp blouse and shorts were clinging to her slender body as she gasped for breath!
Without warning, a giant Sentinel materialized behind them. Beast heard the distinctive whirring as it lifted a steely arm, and spun around.
"Ilyana! Look out!" he yelled as the huge robot swung at them, shattering the branch they'd been perched upon. "Jump!" He headed the other direction, nimbly landing on his large feet, and somersaulted twice, trying to draw the Sentinel's attention.
Ilyana managed to catch a trailing vine as she fell. Her landing was clumsy but, Xavier privately conceded, more skillful than he had anticipated.
Behind him, Nightcrawler uneasily stirred. "Ze child iz tiring, Profezzor," he urged, his distinctive Austrian voice thick with anxiety. "Iz it truly necezzary to push her zo hard?"
Xavier spared the indigo-skinned monk a reassuring smile. "I believe that she has tremendous potential," he explained. He was keenly aware of Colossus's rapt attention as he levitated forward several inches for a better look at the weary girl. "There is no way of knowing what form her mutant abilities will take, yet I sense that they are surging close to the surface. Better that they should manifest themselves here, in a controlled environment, than out there where they cannot be contained!"
Colossus tore his eyes away from his little sister to frown down at Xavier. "You hope that by pushing her to exhaustion, her abilities will surface?" he clarified.
Xavier canted his head to one side, studying the girl's progress. "They are already surfacing, Colossus," he absently murmured over his shoulder. "Now I must push her to a crisis point. It is necessary...but I take no pleasure in it, I assure you!"
Below them, Ilyana scrambled to her feet and dodged the Sentinel's large metallic feet. Why was it coming after her? Beast was firing at it with a small hand-held weapon, trying to distract it--could it sense that she was the weaker target?
She must find some way to defend herself!
Panting, she clambered over a fallen tree. Her fingers curled around a long, straight length of wood, and she used it to vault across the next barrier, a deep chasm in the ground. The branch felt good in her hand. Heartened by its sturdy strength, she clung to it as she whirled, searching for the next danger.
Above her! Beast had finally disabled the Sentinel, blowing its head off its huge body!
And it was falling right on top of her!
"Étah mnyeh né nrahveetsah!"
Her terrified scream split the air as she tried to dodge, and tripped over a jagged stump.
It was going to crush her!
"Ilyana!" Beast's horrified voice echoed in unison with Colossus's as they both made futile lunges in her direction, trying to save her.
The wooden branch! In desperation, Ilyana swung it over her head, trying to deflect the huge falling missile.
A tremendous explosion rocked the Danger Room, hurling Beast back against the far wall. Up in the control room, Colossus and Nightcrawler staggered, shaken, then lurched forward again.
"Ilyana!" Colossus yelled, his eyes wide with panic.
Nightcrawler was already gone in a gray puff of smoke. An instant later he materialized down in the battered chamber, cradling Ilyana's small body in his arms. "She iz ztill alive!" he shouted over the shrill, wailing alarms. "Zomeone help Beazt!"
Xavier rapidly punched a series of buttons, and the sirens faded into silence. The Danger Room's deadly illusions vanished as Colossus charged through the opening doors, his steely frame glittering under the harsh lights.
Beast staggered to his feet, blearily shaking his head. "Thank you, my friend," he gasped as Colossus's strong arm looped around his shoulders, supporting him. Then he blinked several times, and his vision cleared. "What in the world could have caused such a violent detonation?" he demanded, staring around in confusion.
Across the room, Ilyana slowly opened her eyes. "Mnyeh bolynah," she whispered, too dazed to be frightened by the sight of a strange, demonish creature hovering over her. "Mnyeh bolynah ."
Colossus and Beast instantly hurried to her side. "What hurts, little one?" her brother urged, dropping to his knees beside her. "Tell me!"
"Piotr?" Tears filled the girl's clear blue eyes. "Úmnyah bahlêt näghah!"
All the tension seemed to drain out of the Russian's steely body as he heaved a deep, relieved sigh. "She says her leg hurts. It is only a scrape, Ilyana," he promised, forcing a weary smile. "We will bandage it for you, and then you must rest."
"Dah, Piotr," she obediently whispered. Sighing, she nestled more snugly into Nightcrawler's warm arms and closed her eyes.
The slender monk blinked in surprise, then offered Colossus a shy, pleased smile. "Come, let uz take her to ze infirmary, my friendz," he urged in a soft undertone. "Hold my armz?"
As the two bemused mutants complied, he nimbly teleported them back up into the control room.
Professor Xavier laid a gentle hand on the girl's forehead, then nodded his head in satisfaction. "Ilyana is dazed from the experience, but she has taken no serious harm," he assured them. "While she is sleeping, will you rejoin me in the Ready Room? I believe that a careful review of today's training session may prove most instructive."
"Of course, Professor," Beast murmured, nodding. "Gentlemen, if you will follow me..." And he quietly led the way from the room, with Nightcrawler and Colossus at his heels.
Alone again, Xavier stared down into the shattered Danger Room and slowly shook his head. "Such incredible power at such a young age!" he whispered, awed. "Her potential is even greater than I had imagined!"
Ilyana's frightened face loomed close for a moment as Xavier adjusted the holographic controls. Then her whole body shifted back into view. "Look," he urged, freezing the picture and enhancing it. "She is still carrying the broken stick. Now see how she lifts it, trying to deflect the Sentinel's head."
At his mental command, the film inched forward a few frames at a time. The assembled mutants stared in fascination as the child's arms slowly lifted, wielding the branch almost like a sword.
"Surely she couldn't have thought she could deflect it with that!" Cyclops protested, shaking his head. Behind him, Banshee grimly nodded his agreement.
"Desperation can cause the mind to act in an irrational manner," Xavier conceded, covertly glancing in Carly's direction. "Yet in this case, I believe that instinct played a much larger part in saving her life. Watch this."
The film began to move at half its normal speed. Ilyana's clear blue eyes closed tight...in concentration, perhaps...and the tip of her stick began to glow with a brilliant golden light. It seemed to swell for just an instant, bulging with barely-contained power. Then a tremendous burst of energy erupted from it.
Xavier shifted the scene again as the blast intersected the Sentinel's head and shattered it into a million fragments. Beast grimaced as he saw himself being thrown back by the powerful explosion.
"If Merlin was a mutant..." he murmured under his breath.
Jean stared at him in blank confusion. "Merlin? What does he have to do with this, Hank?"
Beast thoughtfully frowned. "Before I invited Ilyana to join me in the Danger Room, we were having a conversation about the book she was reading...the same book which she claims your mother gave to her, Professor!" he added, soberly glancing over at his mentor. "She asked whether Merlin could have been a mutant, because his mythical abilities seem comparable to those of Dr. Strange and his associates.
"I have read about Merlin's magical staff," he ruefully continued, shrugging his wide shoulders. "When I saw the power discharge from the end of her branch, it reminded me of an etching I once saw."
Xavier frowned. "We must ascertain how she channeled that burst of power before we draw any conclusions," he warned. "When she wakes, I will speak with her. In the meantime..."
He hesitated a moment, then slowly nodded. "In the meantime, I believe that I have been given another student to train."
Jubilee's frightened voice startled the tall Irish telepath out of his distant thoughts. Turning, he waved a cheerful greeting as she staggered out of their makeshift cave and rubbed her eyes. "G'mornin', sleepyhead!" he called down the steep hill. "C'mon up an' grab some breakfast!"
Jubilee grimaced as she ran impatient hands through her short, spiky hair, then pulled her sunglasses back on. "You were supposed to wake me up!" she accused as she joined him. "Why'd you let me sleep all night?"
Kevin flashed her an unrepentant grin. "Nights here are short," he lied. "Ye can stand watch t'night, if ye're really bound t' try."
Something about his smug tone made Jubilee stare at him in open suspicion, but as always, his mental shields were too strong for her to penetrate. Sighing, she flopped down and reached into her backpack. "Well, I guess I must've needed the rest," she grudgingly conceded.
"Say, I wonder if anything around here's edible!" she added, eyeing her nutrition cubes with distaste. They looked, smelled, and tasted like old blue styrofoam.
Kevin gestured toward the scattered, distant islands below them. "Mebbe we'll find somethin' down there. Soon as ye're done, we'd best git goin'." As he spoke, her rumpled sleeping bag drifted out of the leafy hollow, shook itself out, and coiled itself back onto her survival pack.
"I sure wish I could learn to do that!" Jubilee enviously exclaimed as she took a cautious bite of her breakfast cube. And what she wouldn't give for a few cans of soda to help wash the wretched thing down! "Next time we do something like this, remind me to bring something good to drink, will ya?"
Sighing, she tugged her long coat on and tossed the survival pack over her shoulder. "Okay, let's go," she urged. "Now how're we gonna get down that cliff?"
Kevin grabbed his own pack, and deactivated his Genosha belt. A glowing golden haze instantly enveloped his muscular body. Moments later, a huge funnel of water rose up out of the ocean and soared into the air. Like this! he cheerfully 'pathed, gesturing.
The swirling cone of water was hovering only a few feet away from the cliff. Proteus's slash-mouth curved into a grin as he maneuvered it a little closer, then jumped across the intervening space. C'mon, Jubilee, it's safe! he urged, reaching for her hand. Let's go, 'fore someone sees us!
Jubilee quickly obeyed, and dropped to her knees as the whirling tube began to drop, gently lowering them down the cliff. An invisible barrier tingled against her bare legs and widespread palms--why, she wasn't getting wet at all! Trust Proteus to think of everything!
Ye're welcome, he retorted, a teasing slash-grin gashing across his luminous face. Ye'd not wanta catch a cold, now would ye?
Trillions of light-years from the nearest doctor...that was a little sobering. What if one of them got hurt?
Then Jubilee firmly thrust the thought from her mind. They were young and strong and invincible--what could possibly go wrong?
She'd half-hoped that Proteus would let them down on the sandy beach, but he had other ideas. Without warning, the swirling tube reformed into a giant wave beneath them. Then they were surfing a high speed toward the nearest island.
Jubilee grinned with delight as she leaned into the brisk wind. Whatever else happened to them on this trip, it was gonna be one adventure she'd never forget!
High up in the cloudless sky, a tiny shimmering orb kept pace with the energetic teenagers. And several leagues behind them, an eclectic trio of aliens watched a small, glowing datacell as the two young mutants scrambled onto the first island and their transport-wave melted back into the ocean. The taller mutant touched the device at its thorax, and its golden glow vanished. Then it clasped digits with the smaller one and they disappeared into the thick underbrush.
Tarlok bared his sharp teeth in reluctant approval. "The creatures are more intelligent than I had surmised," he confessed. "They must sense that they are being followed. 'The chase is good when the hunter becomes the prey,' " he intoned, quoting a favorite Llrrtan idiom.
Mitros raised a shimmering tentacle, moderating his partner's pleasure with caution. "Let's make sure that we don't become the hunted, as well," he retorted. "We'll stay here, under cover, until they emerge again. And no less than fifteen tercets between us at any time. If these two are caught, I don't want the pirates to know that we're closing in."
The furry Llrrtan nodded his agreement. "We will wait here," he agreed. "But what of our witness?"
Both aliens spared a glance at their tall captive, who was intently watching the datacell over their shoulders. Its reddish eyes were narrowed as it made more of its harsh mouth-sounds. Someday, perhaps, they would learn its uncouth language. For now, they could only wonder why it shook its head in concern.
"Gambit sure hope dey behave demselves las' night!" the tall Cajun muttered under his breath, scowling at his own vivid imagination. "Da P'fessor ain't gonna like dis..."
"I already tried!" Wolverine snarled, impotently glaring around the large, dimly-lit cave. "There's no way out!"
Rogue refused to listen. "We still got our powers, so there's gotta be a way!" she insisted. "Maybe if we all work t'gether!"
Encouraged, Storm braced herself for another attempt. Their large holding cell seemed to be made of thick, transparent crystal. They could see out, and fresh air was definitely flowing in. There must be a way to break free!
"Let us all concentrate on one section of the wall," she instructed. "Rogue, you center your efforts on the top. Wolverine, you will take the bottom. I will focus on the middle."
Wolverine scowled as he cast one more baleful look at their nearest neighbors, an imprisoned pair of seal-like amphibians. "Place looks like a damned zoo!" he muttered under his breath. "What are we, specimen number twenty?"
"Logan, please!" Storm urged, laying a hand on his wiry shoulder. "We must work together if we are to escape!"
Wolverine's long adamantium claws flashed in a stray beam of light. "So let's do it!" he rasped. "Now!"
Vartas shook his triangular head in wonder as he stared down into the slave pens. "Look at their strength!" he exclaimed. His sharp upper claws opened and closed in rhythmic cadence, accenting his excitement. "We've never had such incredible specimens before!"
"They will bring a good price," his companion rumbled as he angrily scratched at his aching shoulder. The smallest alien would pay, and pay well, for daring to score a Llrrtan slave pirate!
"And see how intelligent they are!" Vartas eagerly added, ignoring his partner's discomfort as he swayed back and forth on long, spindly legs. "Combining their efforts to escape!"
Then he flashed his taller companion an anxious frown. "You're sure they can't break free, Stronn? We've never encountered their species before--they could be capable of anything!"
Stronn bared his teeth in a fierce snarl. "You worry too much!" he grated. "Let them try! The Chyigh orb will subdue them." And he waved at the glowing mass of energy hovering above the myriad cubes. "No prisoners have ever escaped its tendrils!"
Reassured, the large mantis-alien turned back to watch their newest captives in action. Such savage power...if they could be tamed, they would bring an excellent price!
Stronn was already several jumps beyond him. "Now that their corridor has been opened, we must strike quickly! An entire world of these creatures would make us rich beyond our wildest dreams!" he exclaimed, his slanting eyes glowing with anticipation. "No more skulking in damp caves, hiding from the authorities...we will buy the authorities, and put them in our pockets!"
Stronn's clanmate, Tarrgh, entered the control room in time to hear his eager plans. "Just the four of us?" he scoffed, clicking his long, jagged claws together. "We do not have the manpower to achieve such a feat!"
But Stronn was not about to be deterred. "The Slavers' Guild will support us," he insisted. "Our profit is their profit! They will surely provide us with superior weapons and enough obedient slaves for an invasion! After all, those creatures have only just learned how to activate their portal, so their population must still be small! How many of them could there possibly be?"
Tarrgh fell silent, considering his partner's persuasive arguments. "The Guildship should be arriving soon to collect their next shipment," he finally conceded. "Perhaps when they view our three newest acquisitions, they will see the merit in your scheme."
Vartas spared one last worried glance at their prisoners. They were settling back down now, resting after their exertions. Power, indeed...but what if they could not be tamed?
"This ain't workin'!" Wolverine growled, sheathing his claws again. "I can't make a dent in that crystal stuff!"
Storm reluctantly drifted to the floor again. "I fear that you may be right, Logan," she conceded. "My lightning bolts seem magnified somehow, much more powerful than on Earth. Yet they have no effect! And even Rogue was unable to fracture the wall!" A heavy sigh escaped her. "We may be confined here until Gambit appears. But he will surely find a way to rescue us!"
Rogue choked back a sob as she whirled away and slumped against the far wall. Her teammates stared at her for a moment, startled, then exchanged worried glances. Storm gently laid a hand on her trembling shoulder. "Whatever is the matter, Rogue?" she urged, her voice soft with compassion. "Gambit will free us eventually! You must have faith in him!"
Hot tears began to burn Rogue's cheeks, and she impatiently dashed them away. "He cain't come rescue us!" she protested, spinning back around. "They killed him--I saw it when they took me prisoner! Gambit's dead!"
Storm's hand fell away as she met Wolverine's shocked gaze.
Gambit...dead? It seemed so impossible!
Stunned, she sagged back against the transparent wall.
What would happen to them now?
Jubilee grabbed Kevin's arm and yanked him back just as something big snapped at them through the thick foliage. Fingers spread wide, she launched a volley of plasma globes at the giant, slathering creature before it could ooze out of the swamp and follow them. It lurched back, snarling, and reluctantly disappeared again.
"What was that?" Kevin muttered as they stared in horror at the receding bubbles. "C'mon, 'fore it decides t' come back!"
"Yeah, or bring reinforcements!" Jubilee agreed, nodding. Her eyes wide, she followed him down the narrow, barely-defined path. Stinging leaves kept slapping at her face, and she ducked to avoid them. "I swear, everything we've seen here belongs on a really bad B-rated movie set!"
Kevin threw a teasing grin over his shoulder. "That's what ye used t' think 'bout me," he reminded her.
"Well," she retorted, glaring at his wide back, "that was before I got to know you! And anyway, you've never tried to eat me alive! I don't know what that thing was, but it definitely looked hungry!"
"Look!" Kevin suddenly exclaimed, pointing. "I think we're almost through th' swamp! C'mon!"
Jubilee cast one last dark glare back at the treacherous bogs behind them, and hurried after him. "I sure hope we have better luck on the next island!" she grumbled.
"Is everyone accounted for?"
Sinister's sharp fangs glittered in the dim light as he stalked into the main chamber, his long black spider-cape sweeping behind him. His dramatic entrance halted the low-pitched conversations around him. Even Pyro and the Blob stopped their petty bickering and turned around.
It didn't take an empath to sense the evil scientist's impatience. And he could be vicious when his temper flared. Mystique mustered a soothing smile as she stepped forward and gestured around him. "Not everyone is good at slogging through jungles, Sinister," she pointed out. "They'll be here soon."
Then, as his scowl deepened, she respectfully inclined her head. "Take it as a compliment--you've chosen your lair so well that the opposition will never find us!"
Her shrewd flattery appeased his growing irritation. "Yes," he hissed, his red eyes gleaming with pride. "You are right. They will--ah, here is Sabertooth now," he smoothly interrupted himself, waving toward the cave's gaping entrance. "And you have brought your beloved son! How touching!"
Startled, Mystique whirled around. Sabertooth flashed her a sardonic grin which turned to outright disgust as he roughly shoved a smaller man into the cave. Wide-eyed with terror, Graydon Creed, Jr., dropped to his knees and cowered on the floor, trembling.
His son...her son.
Mystique grimly shook her head. Such a pathetic excuse for a human...of all her children, she held only him in utter contempt.
She could hardly even remember what had drawn her to Sabertooth four decades ago...loneliness, perhaps, and fascination for his raw, untamed power. Too bad his mind wasn't as sharp as his adamantium-tipped claws!
But she had hoped that their only offspring would redeem that wretched interlude. Instead, he'd been a thorn in their sides for years. A confirmed mutant-hater...because he was afraid that he might carry some hidden, deeply-suppressed talent of his own?
Well, he could rest easy now. It still amazed her that two full mutants could produce a pure human...her liaison with a wealthy Austrian nobleman had produced a mutant whose appearance and talents were even stranger than hers! Yet young Creed was undeniably human--his ability to survive Apocalypse's deadly mutant Legacy plague was proof enough of that!
"Why did you bring him?" she demanded, flinging one hand in Creed's direction. "He's of no use to us!"
Sabertooth favored her with another wry grin. "Can't leave him running loose," he grunted. "' Sides, he's still got a few lessons to learn about bein' respectful to his pa! Don'tcha, boy?"
A long shudder swept through Creed's body as he caught sight of silvery tentacles waving through the shadows nearby. Omega Red! And Deadpool was lurking around on the far side of the cave, ominously fingering one of his lethal weapons. The Blob was leering down at him with that insipid grin. Sinister's eyes were narrowing with malicious glee.
Everywhere he looked...evil incarnate!
He had lengthy profiles on each one of these filthy mutants--he knew exactly what they were capable of! And they'd kill him without thinking twice if he didn't obey Sabertooth quickly!
Gulping, he managed a weak nod. Somehow he had to play along with their diabolic game until he could find a way to escape! Even dying in that awful jungle out there was better than staying here!
Mystique sighed and shook her head. Young Creed was beneath contempt or hatred...to her surprise, she actually felt a slight stirring of pity in her soul! And deep in her memory, the sad, echoing voice of a young Austrian monk whispered, "I vill pray zat God vill forgive me...so zat I may forgive you."
Her other son, Kurt Wagner, the Nightcrawler. Kurt had offered his own life to save hers. And even he had refused to hate Creed for his diabolical schemes. Could she do any less?
Perhaps she'd been wrong, turning Sabertooth's infant son over to a human couple for fostering. Unlike some of his older siblings, he hadn't been an easy baby to raise. But she could have kept him with her, even though the Brotherhood's leadership had just fallen on her shoulders.
Still, she'd thought that she was doing the right thing. His foster parents had been warm, loving people...until their older child was killed in a mutant-caused train wreck. Then their easy acceptance had turned to hatred, and they'd poisoned Creed's mind. She'd tried several times to reclaim him, to turn him back to a more reasonable viewpoint--but they'd refused her any contact with the embittered child. And his hatred had grown over the years, blossoming into open malice toward his true kinsmen.
"Leave him alone, Sabertooth," she urged, turning away again. "You've tormented him enough."
The tawny-maned giant scowled down at her through the dark shadows. "Goin' soft on me, Raven?" he demanded.
"No!" she retorted, glaring right back at him.
But deep in her mind, Kurt's lightly-accented voice was whispering, "You are my mother!"
"No," she repeated in a quieter voice. "We have a lot of work to do, and he'll only be in the way."
A loud scuffling in the entryway distracted them both. "I thought we'd never find this place!" Juggernaut boomed, his loud voice echoing through the vast cave. "Outa my way, shorty!" And he aimed a massive kick at Creed as he stalked inside. "C'mon, Tom, this is the place!"
Creed managed to evade the worst of the blow as Tom Cassidy followed his huge partner into the darkness, but a hoarse, agonized cry escaped him as he went sprawling across the dirt floor.
Sabertooth ignored him. Turning, he energetically clasped hands with Avalanche.
Somehow, despite her better intentions, Mystique found herself at Creed's side. He was heavier than she'd expected--could he have inherited something of Sabertooth's massive frame, after all? Bracing herself, she tightened her internal structure and pulled him to his feet. He was gasping for breath as he clutched his ribs--that overgrown, testosterone-laden bully had probably cracked some of them.
"Do what I tell you," she murmured in a cautious undertone, tugging at his arm. "Follow me back into the shadows and stay there."
Creed glared at her, his eyes narrowed with wary suspicion. "Why should I do that?" he wheezed. "Why should I trust you?"
Again, Kurt's mournful face seem to rise up before her eyes. Mystique bit her lip and guiltily glanced away. Then she met Creed's hostile gaze again with a wan, regretful smile. "Because I'm your mother."
Mr. Sinister found Mystique's maternal response amusing--and unamusing. Creed had surrounded himself with loathsome humans for too many years to accept wisdom now. When the portal was activated, he would be left behind, to survive if he could. He was too dangerous to bring with them.
On the other hand...he would make an interesting test subject!
Sinister's wicked smile deepened as he considered the intriguing possibilities. The only known human son of two full mutants--what fascinating deviations might a constructive reorganization of his DNA provide? Perhaps this mutant-hater would be useful to him after all!
He imperiously gestured for Mystique to lead Creed into the alcove that held his precious portal. He had not missed that brief rebellious gleam in the man's eyes when Mystique had touched his arm. They would all be safer if their enemy was closely guarded by mutants he knew could be trusted!
Mystique hesitated--she'd hoped to secure Creed out of the way, where he'd be forgotten and overlooked in the final scramble to leave.
Sinister's warning frown made her reconsider. There would be another time, another opportunity. "Trust me," she breathed in his ear as she reluctantly obeyed. "Later."
Hairbag and Slab took up defensive positions on either side of Creed, forcing him back onto a wide rocky ledge. Gasping in pain, the bitter human sagged down and leaned against the slimy wall, still hugging his throbbing ribs. He would find a way to escape...he must! Or die trying!
Sinister favored him with a gloating leer, then spun away and shouted for Ruckus and Jorge. "Apparently my little telepath needs some persuading!" he snarled, his fangs gleaming. "Ruckus, Jorge, I know that you can convince her to see the wisdom of my plans! Bring her to me!"
The two large mutants exchanged uneasy glances, then obediently nodded. "Sure thing, boss," Ruckus shrugged. "Feisty little thing, wasn't she, tellin' you off that way?"
Sinister's eyes narrowed, and a suspicious glow began to light his black-gloved hands. Ruckus knew that sign all too well! Gulping, he backed away several paces, and threw the evil scientist a hasty salute. "We're goin', we're goin'!" he promised. "C'mon, Jorge!"
Sinister impotently glared after them as they hurried from the cave. Impertinent little snip, refusing to join his righteous cause! He would prove to her just who was the more powerful mutant!
Let her put on airs and boast about her vaunted psychic powers...in time, she would call him 'master'! And then she would be his to command!
A deep, muted roar startled the two weary teenagers into new awareness. Eyes wide, Jubilee staggered to her feet and peeked out of the concealing underbrush while Kevin shoved the remains of their makeshift lunch into his knapsack. "Look!" she whispered over her shoulder as he cautiously joined her. "It's a big spaceship!"
The large alien craft soared past the horizon, approaching them, then seemed to hover overhead for a moment. "Who d'ye think it is?" Kevin murmured, his eyebrows drawn together in an anxious frown. "An' what d' they want? They can't've seen us--can they?"
Without warning, the light afternoon breeze became a fierce, hot wind as plasma jets fired and the ship slowly dropped toward a nearby island. Kevin and Jubilee ducked back down as multicolored leaves began to whip back and forth around them with frenzied speed. Then the tempest passed, and they warily peered back out.
"I dunno," Jubilee admitted, scowling with indecision. Then she straightened and jutted her small chin at an obstinate angle. "But I think we ought to find out! C'mon!"
Kevin was only a step behind her. Let's git over there quick as we can, he telepathically hissed as he triggered his belt and disappeared behind his glowing mutant-mask. The sooner we're under cover again, the safer we'll be!
"We'll have to risk being seen," Jubilee agreed. "Let's just hope they're so busy landing that they haven't set out any guards yet!"
What would Wolverine do in a situation like this? she wondered as Proteus summoned a fast wave and they shot across the intervening channel. Probably charge right in, ready to slash his way through a mountain of aliens!
And that might work against Sentinels or some of the other villains they'd had to fight over the years. But these guys had already managed to beat the X-Men once, if she'd read the damage right in that big portal chamber. So maybe Wolverine's normal tactics wouldn't work very well in this situation.
Storm would urge caution...and she'd probably send Gambit in to investigate! Gambit was sneaky enough to infiltrate anyplace without getting caught!
Okay, that's what they'd do, then. They'd sneak in as close as they could get, and see just what those alien creeps were doing! And if the X-Men were there...
Bracing herself, she leaped off the transport wave and charged across the narrow beach. Gritty sand flew in all directions as she hurled herself at the closest clump of underbrush, and wriggled deep into its concealing depths. Kevin's ragged breathing echoed a few feet away as he tried to keep up with her. Well, she had gotten a lot of practice creeping through jungles in the Danger Room...maybe she ought to slow down a little and let him catch up.
Then she caught her first glimpse of the large alien ship, and her eyes widened in surprise. "Weird!" she gasped, startled. "Lookit that!"
Kevin pushed a low-hanging branch out of his face and peered into the large clearing. He'd half-expected the craft to look like one of the Shi'ar bug-ships, or even one of Earth's graceful shuttles. Instead, dozens of big round globes were all smashed onto a long oval cylinder without any regard for balance or aesthetics. And he'd swear that some of the globes were undulating, expanding and contracting, almost as if...
"Is that thing alive?" he hissed, grimacing.
"It's gross!" Jubilee complained. "Yuk!"
Suddenly one of the big globes seemed to ooze apart, forming a vaguely circular doorway. Several large, burly aliens stalked out, weapons drawn, and hurried around the far end of the ship. The entrance to a deeply-buried cave was barely visible beyond it. Jubilee's dark eyes narrowed as they marched inside and vanished into the darkness.
A few moments later they were back, prodding at a pair of slow moving walrus-like creatures. Muffled barks and growls drifted across the clearing as the waddling captives were forced up a long ramp. Then the globe closed behind them, trapping them inside.
Partway down the length of the ship, another big globe was opening. "I'll bet those things are like prison cells!" Jubilee exclaimed, her eyes widening again. "What do you think these guys are, slavers or something?"
Something sharp prodded into her back. "Hey, knock it off!" she muttered, glaring over at Kevin. "That hurts!"
"But I wasn't..."
Kevin's indignant protest suddenly died as he spun around and froze, his eyes wide with fear.
Startled, Jubilee rolled over...and found herself staring straight into the muzzle of a big, ugly energy weapon.
And behind it, a large mantis-like alien was swaying back and forth on four long, spindly legs. Its large clawed pincers held the rifle with easy, expert strength. Her skin tingling, Jubilee stared up at the creature's glittering, multi-faceted eyes.
C'mon, Kevin! she 'pathed, her mental voice sharp with urgency. Do something!
The gun's too close t'ye--it'll shoot ye 'fore I can stop it! he flashed back. We'd best do what it wants...fer now!
The alien chittered something, a triumphant sound, and gestured with the rifle. Its meaning was unmistakable. Groaning at her own stupidity, Jubilee staggered to her feet and spread her empty hands wide.
A woman's sharp, angry voice echoed through the air as Kevin obediently started to rise. Jubilee got the briefest glimpse of blonde hair and a masked face.
Impossible...it couldn't be...
But it didn't matter right now! Jubilee obediently hurled herself at Kevin, knocking him back down into the bushes. Behind her, the large mantis silently folded and collapsed into a small pile.
"Are you two okay?" The woman's voice was harsh with displeasure as she settled to the ground. "Who are you, anyway? And what are you doing here?"
Jubilee brushed dirt off her long coat as she pushed herself upright and stared. Black and blue uniform with a golden lightning bolt...long red sash...high-peaked facemask...
"Carol Danvers!" she exclaimed, shoving her visor back into position. "It is you, isn't it?"
The woman stared at her in shocked disbelief. "How do you know my real name?" she demanded. Then she blinked several times, and seemed to retreat into herself. "Jubilee," she murmured. "Your name is Jubilation Lee. And you're Kevin MacTaggert," she added in a distant, bewildered voice. "How do I know you?"
A distant snarl recalled her, and she yanked the two teenagers back into the nearest thicket of trees. "Don't let them see us!" she hissed, jerking her head toward the ship.
Then she stared down at Jubilee in open confusion again. "Where are we? I woke up in a big chamber three days ago, and I'm not sure how I got there...but I'm certain that we are not on Earth!"
Jubilee hunched a little lower as one of the aliens shouted at its comrades. "You can say that again!" she wryly agreed. "But it's a long story and right now we don't have the time. Listen, have you seen anyone else around here, other than those guys?"
Danvers angrily shook her head. "They tried to capture me when I left that big dome-place," she scowled. "I got away, and I've been trying to find some other people since then...but there's no one else here!"
Then she seemed to retreat into herself again, and a confused frown darkened her face. "I used to be a crime fighter, didn't I?"
The two teenagers exchanged startled glances. "Yeah," Jubilee finally offered, "one of the best. You don't remember?"
Danvers offered her an uncertain smile. "It's coming back to me, but the last few days have been pretty confusing," she confessed. "Last thing I remember, I was trying to stop this little red-headed brat from stealing a fighter jet...and then I was waking up here! And if I ever find her again..." Her voice dropped with grim foreboding.
Jubilee swallowed hard. She was talking about Rogue--who else could it be? And the last thing they needed right now was for those two to start fighting, when their very lives were at stake!
"Listen," she quickly urged, "I think maybe they've got our teammates locked up in there, and we're gonna break 'em out! Can you set up a diversion out here so we can sneak in?"
Danvers arched a disbelieving eyebrow behind her dark mask. "Just the two of you--a pair of kids? You've got to be kidding--they'll wipe you out in no time!"
Kevin indignantly stiffened. "I'd like t' see 'em try!" he retorted, his Irish brogue deepening with outrage.
Danvers tossed him an unpleasant smile. "Fine, go right ahead! But don't expect me to save you the next time you get caught!"
"Now we have them!" His tentacles shimmering with excitement, Mitros threw the speeder into high gear. "And a guildship on the Nexus planet! They've gone too far this time!"
Tarlok bared his teeth in a furious scowl as he grimly nodded. "Faster, Mitros! The slavers are renowned for their speed! We must not lose them this time!"
"And we won't!" his partner promised. The speeder rose above the surrounding treetops, hovered for an instant, then shot forward at incredible speed.
Tarlok and Mitros were prepared for the dramatic change of velocity. Their witness was not. Swearing, Gambit sprawled across the rear compartment and came to a painful stop against the far wall. "Where you learn t' drive, eh?" he demanded, propping himself up on one elbow. "Huh! Got yer licence from a Cracker Jack box!"
If only his wrists weren't bound with these weird electromagnetic shackles! He wasn't even sure if he could charge them properly! Well, he sure wasn't gonna try 'til it was absolutely necessary! No point in tipping his hand too soon--they'd only find some nastier way of subduing him.
But when he finally found the X-Men...
To be continued...