"You've got to be joking!" A dark frown creased Cyclops's forehead as he stared across the large round conference table in disbelief. "You can't seriously be considering going through that thing yourself, not after what it did to you the last time!"
Despite its size, the Blackbird was surprisingly crowded. Carly prudently stayed out of everyone's way as the big plane soared out of the hangar and left the elegant mansion behind.
The sandstorm began as a faint smudge on the western horizon. It was not unusual for the winds to blow at sunset, so the archaeologists scurried around the archaeological site, securing the area against the storm's damage.
Nothing, however, could have prepared them for its speed and ferocity. Within mere minutes, fiercely-screaming winds whipped through the enclosure, driving gritty sand into their faces and the folds of their long protective robes.
The native workmen were still leery of the sacred chamber, after the brief battle two nights ago. Several of them had already left, preferring the dubious profits of the ever-changing sûq to the certain wrath of angry gods. The remaining few charged for the large covered trucks, superstitiously wailing chants to ward off evil, as the dazed scientists and guards raced after them.
Storm kept an easy pace beside the Blackbird, her arms spread wide to catch the warm air currents. Here, in the center of the powerful sandstorm she'd conjured, the turbulent winds were surprisingly calm. Only she and the immense plane existed, safely tucked inside this tiny pocket of sanity.
She could imagine the panic reigning at Henré's site right now. If only she could have contacted him, warned him that she and her teammates were returning!
Discretion had proved the greater force, and the need to protect her dear friend. Whatever happened down in the sacred chamber this time, he could honestly claim his ignorance. The less contact they shared until this entire ordeal was over, the safer he would remain.
She spared a quick glance over her shoulder. Cyclops' grim face was visible through the cockpit window as he tensely scanned his instruments. He had been in favor of waiting until full darkness to make a stealthy landing. Rogue's insistence that time was critical had irritated him, especially when Professor Xavier had supported her pleas.
Their current approach might lack subtlety...but it was unquestionably faster. Storm imperiously raised her hand, and motioned for Cyclops to follow her through the whirling sandstorm. The pocket of calm air moved with them, protecting them from harm even as the surrounding tempest protected them from view.
Cyclops glared down at his control panel as he cautiously followed Storm's lead. The blinding sand was just missing the Blackbird's wingtips--if he strayed too far away from her in any direction, they might easily crash in the vast desert.
They could have waited until sundown--a few hours wouldn't have made that much difference! "This is sheer lunacy!" he muttered under his breath. "There's got to be a better way than this..."
Once again, Jean laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, and he reluctantly subsided.
It wasn't that he didn't want to help Rogue, he grudgingly amended. She was a good fighter, and a valuable asset to Professor Xavier's team. But to recklessly throw herself into that alien portal! And to take three of their best mutants with her! They might never be able to find their way home again!
And the moment their enemies heard that half of Xavier's elite team was gone, all hell was going to break loose! How was he supposed to lead an effective force against them, when half of that force consisted of an inexperienced teenager and an untrained empath?
Sheer lunacy...but obviously no one wanted to hear his opinions! And Storm was already heading for the ground.
Scowling, he confirmed their position, then fired the bottom thrusters.
If she had judged their position correctly...there! The enclosure was right beneath her!
Storm settled to the ground and spread her arms again, widening the sphere of calm air to include the battered Sphinx. Too much damage had already been done to the stately monument over the long centuries, and she had no desire to leave her own destructive mark.
The spirit of the Sphinx protects those who heed her call. So she had been taught as a child, and so she had come to believe in her own heart. Had she not been protected all her life, even by the bands of thieves who prowled Cairo's squalid alleys? The ways of the spirits were often unfathomable, but always true to those who believed.
Would the Sphinx's mystical spirit protect her now, as she journeyed beyond the limits of her own imagination to whatever new world awaited her and her teammates?
The encampment looked deserted, and she felt a moment's relief. Someday Henré would understand why she had not dared to involve him a second time. Let the natives whisper of the old gods' return...it would not be the first time she had been mistaken for a powerful deity.
Her adopted tribe had worshiped her as a goddess for many years, until Professor Xavier had convinced her to use her awesome mutant talents for a nobler purpose. And down in Mexico, a scant few months ago, the malevolent Huath had seemed to recognize in her a kindred spirit to his old nemesis. Even Amaldio, whom she had belatedly identified as one of the ancient Teotihuacano gods, had acknowledged the uncanny resemblance.
How would the entities on the other side of the portal view her? Were they so powerful that her amazing powers might seem childish in comparison?
Dust flew as the massive Blackbird descended onto the enclosure wall beside her, and she instinctively shielded her face. Then the landing ramp began to descend. She turned to greet her somber colleagues as they slowly filed past her.
Professor Xavier, their dignified telepathic mentor. Jean and Scott, their psychic bonding even stronger since their marriage several months ago. Gentle, brilliant Beast. Spunky little Jubilee. Carly, their shy, empathic new student.
Would she ever see them again? Would she and her teammates ever return from wherever the ancient portal might send them?
As if he could read her troubled thoughts, Wolverine tossed her a sardonic grin and half-salute as he stalked over to the cliff's rim. A sturdy survival pack was already slung across his wide shoulders. Without hesitation, he unsheathed his long claws and began scaling down the sheer stone wall.
Rogue and Gambit tugged on their own survival packs as they stared down into the dusty enclosure. Beast handed the fourth pack to Storm, then protectively gathered Carly closer.
A pensive frown on her face, Rogue carelessly launched herself into the air and stared up at the Sphinx's worn features. Then she recalled herself, and grabbed Gambit's and Beast's wrists. Carly clung to Beast's wide shoulders as Rogue lowered them into the enclosure. Xavier cautiously maneuvered his gleaming hoverchair over the edge and glided down toward the high barbed-wire fence. Then Jean telekinetically lowered Scott and Jubilee to the dusty ground, and gracefully drifted down after them.
The moment was truly upon them. Storm hesitated only long enough to summon an extra burst of wind for the raging sandstorm, then nimbly soared down into the enclosure.
The gate was open--the frightened guards had been too concerned for their own lives to worry about securing the sacred chamber. At least someone had repaired Gambit's huge hole...thick wooden planks crisscrossed the gaping crater, shielding the chamber and its precious contents from the harsh climate. Storm prudently tugged her own survival pack on as she followed her teammates down into the sloping tunnel.
Since their last visit, one of the archaeologists had strung a long line of powered lights along the passage. Bright electric bulbs threw wavering shadows across the dirt walls and floor as Cyclops and Wolverine cautiously peered around, ready for any possible danger. To their relief, the guards had fled with the rest of the encampment. The sacred chamber was empty.
No one spoke as they solemnly filed through the wide stone doorway. So much to say, so little time...and then it was too late for lengthy farewells as the portal began to glow with that eerie, opalescent light.
Xavier's clear blue eyes were filled with profound sadness as his four students took their place in front of the shimmering portal. They had come to him hurt, bruised, broken from their dealings with the outside world. The years had taught them wisdom, strength, maturity. They had learned to work as an invincible team, despite vast temperamental and cultural differences.
He could only pray that they would be equal to the immense challenge facing them. And that somehow they would successfully return.
He and his remaining students would survive well enough in their absence...but they would be sorely missed.
Without warning, Jubilee darted forward to hug Wolverine and Gambit one last time. Wolverine looked a little embarrassed, but he managed a reluctant grin as he affectionately returned her fierce embrace.
Gambit forced a half-smile as he gently wiped her tears away. "Ain't no need for tears, petít!" he chided, ruffling her dark hair. "We be back 'fore you know it!"
Jubilee gulped back a muffled sob, then resolutely straightened and stepped back. Wolverine's approving nod helped strengthen her resolve. "Yeah!" he wryly teased. "If the weather's good, maybe we'll take you there for a vacation this winter!"
Xavier moved forward, his keen gaze piercing each of them, to shake their hands. "Are you ready to go?"
Rogue readjusted her pack, and soberly nodded. "I'm ready, Professor," she murmured.
Behind her, the other three silently nodded their agreement.
There was no way he could dissuade them now, even if he had wanted to. Xavier released a heavy sigh of resignation and cautiously glided back again, out of the portal's range. "Then go with God, my friends," he exclaimed, "and return to us soon. Our thoughts will be with you!"
Storm gratefully smiled. "And our thoughts will be with you, as well," she assured him.
Wolverine scowled and cast one last baleful glance at the glowing portal. "I can't believe I'm doin' this!" he grimly muttered under his breath.
Then he straightened. "All right, people, let's move it!" he ordered. "We ain't got all day!"
As one, they warily stepped forward. Six brilliant golden beams of light instantly shot out from the portal's sides and surrounded them.
For one brief moment, no one moved. Then Wolverine's long claws flashed in the dazzling glow. Snarling, he hurled himself into the center of the portal and disappeared. Storm's eyes whitened as she nodded once, and summoned her own mutant powers. A fierce gust of wind swept through the chamber as she soared after him.
Rogue hesitated, uncertainly glancing back at Xavier one last time. Then she looked up at Gambit, and a faint smile curved her lips. His eyes gleaming, the lanky Cajun solemnly offered her his hand. The glowing light seemed to envelop them as she trustingly curled her fingers around his, and they stepped forward together.
"They're gone!" Carly's soft, disbelieving whisper seemed to echo through the chamber as she stared at the vacant stone platform in awe. Then she curiously turned toward Xavier. "Why hasn't the portal shut off yet?" she asked.
His eyes distant, the powerful telepath slowly shook his head. "Perhaps it is waiting...for another traveler," he murmured.
He sounded as if he was drugged...or in a trance!
Jean and Scott exchanged a quick, significant glance with Beast. "Professor," Jean quickly reminded him, touching his shoulder, "you can't go through! You're needed here!"
Her gentle warning seemed to dispel Xavier's wistful reverie. Blinking, he reluctantly straightened. "Yes, Jean, you are quite right," he sighed. "Storm's team will do quite well on their own...wherever they have gone."
The portal abruptly shut off. Overhead, they could hear the distant howl of the raging wind. Its lonely, plaintive wail seemed to reach inside each one of them, expressing the depression that none of them dared to show.
Finally Cyclops gestured toward the dimly-lit entrance. "We'd better get out of here, before that sandstorm dissipates and the scientists come back," he urged, his voice curiously muted.
Xavier soberly nodded. His shoulders sagging, he quietly led the way back into the sloping tunnel, and up to the surface.
The mystical Sphinx watched in enigmatic silence as Jean and Professor Xavier telekinetically lifted their comrades up over the high enclosure wall, then smoothly floated up after them. Moments later, the Blackbird's huge engines rumbled to life, and the sleek black jet vanished into the fiercely swirling sandstorm.
The spirit of the Sphinx protects those who heed her call...
Inside the portal was...
Brilliant, vivid colors flashing by almost too quickly to be seen. Pure crystalline sound coursing over and through them. Tingling, exquisite sensations flooding their awareness with unimaginable beauty and splendor.
And through it all, the reassuring clasp of a soulmate's warm hand.
They had no names, no identities.
Bodiless, twisting, tumbling...yet bound more tightly than flesh, mind to mind, soul to soul...
The Portal was ready.
It was always ready--that was its sole function. Passage to the stars, gateway to eternity.
New motion was detected in a recently-used corridor. The Portal impassively scanned the myriad life forms approaching the Nexus.
Carbon-based. Oxygen-breathing. Bipedal.
Obviously a rather primitive life form. Exotic, but not impossible to accommodate.
It was not the Portal's role to judge the quality of its travelers. Still, it could not resist reviewing its data one last time as the Nexus made its customary preparations. An odd genetic aberration was present in each of the visitors, as it had been in the previous arrival. Was such an aberration normal to this new race, or were these individuals passing through in hopes of finding a cure? Should it have a bio-med team standing by to assist them?
The Portal consulted the Nexus, and together they deliberated for less than a trillionth of a second...several long minutes, by their own reckoning.
It was presumptuous to assume that this newly-discovered life form was inherently flawed, they finally concluded. Still, protocol demanded that notice be sent to the home world whenever a corridor was used, if only for statistical purposes. Some apathetic bean-counter would undoubtedly relish the unusual genetic quirks in these newest scans. Let them take whatever action they felt was appropriate...that was their function!
Preparations were complete. The Nexus readied itself for initial contact.
White...everywhere he looked, the world was white. Cold, blank, like the vast icy snowfields of the far northern poles back on Earth.
Back on Earth...
Suddenly alert again, Wolverine struggled to sit up. Every muscle in his body ached. He felt like he'd been torn apart, battered for a century or more, and then hastily thrown back together. Without regard for trivial concerns like his pain threshold or basic consciousness!
His legs hadn't felt this wobbly after Proteus had melted him into a little black-and-yellow puddle!
Storm was sprawled across the floor a few feet away. Her eyes slowly opened, glowing with an unearthly light, as he staggered to his feet. Then she blinked several times, and seemed to recognize him again.
Wolverine anxiously crouched down beside her. "How you feelin', darlin'?" he urged, his raspy voice deep with barely-suppressed concern.
Storm absently rubbed her forehead as she propped herself up on one elbow. "I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life!" she whispered, awed. "I had no idea..."
Wolverine glared at her in blank disbelief. "You gotta be kiddin'!" he angrily countered. "I feel like Sabertooth's been usin' me for a punchin' bag!"
Startled, Storm vigorously shook her head. "No, Logan, it was not like that at all!" she protested.
Then she hesitated, frowning. "Could each of us have experienced something different?"
A muted groan drew their attention. Rogue was half-stretched across Gambit's lap, her fingers still tightly clutching his. A wry grin curving his lips, Wolverine pulled Storm upright and hurried over to help their dazed companions.
Rogue blearily shook her head as they untangled themselves and staggered to their feet. "What a crazy ride!" she mumbled, swaying. "I ain't never felt nothin' like that before!"
Gambit softly chuckled, amused by her reaction. "We remember dis nex' time we wanta go joyridin', nón?" he teased. Then he cast a jaunty grin at his teammates. "How you feelin', mes ami's?"
Wolverine threw him a scornful glance, then stalked away to investigate the rest of the room. Storm ignored her partner's surly attitude, and gratefully smiled back at the tall Cajun. "A bit shaken, perhaps," she conceded, "but nothing more serious. Thank you for asking, Gambit."
The four travelers were recovering from the initial shock of transferral. The Nexus hesitated a fraction longer, evaluating their curious vital signs. Fluid pressures were returning to normal, mental activity was sharpening. Primal curiosity was beginning to manifest itself. Primitive vocal communication seemed apparent as foreign, oddly-shaped sounds filled the air.
The Nexus was wholly conversant in every available known language. Yet the strange, guttural sounds escaping these entities were entirely unknown. It rapidly scanned its vast data banks, searching for some possible alternative.
Stored deep in the bowels of its enormous memory was an ancient, almost-forgotten dialect which had been common when that particular corridor had been constructed. Could these new beings be bilingual? Could they still comprehend the ancient tongue?
A strange, almost musical tone made Wolverine's head snap up. It was so soft that he could barely even hear it...and it seemed to be coming from all around them. He spun in a tight circle, suspiciously glaring around the blank, featureless room.
Storm motioned for silence and tilted her head to one side as the pure, clear tone reached her own sensitive ears. It was slowly increasing in volume, almost as if trying to avoid startling them. Individual syllables gradually became audible and seemed to repeat in a definite pattern. She could almost understand the eerie, musical cadence...
"Maybe that multicorder of Beast's can make some sense out of it!" Wolverine snarled. His hoarse voice startled her, dispelling the bizarre sense of near-recognition. "Didn't he say he'd programmed it to interpret their alien mumbo-jumbo?"
Of course there was no way she could possibly recognize the alien speech patterns, not after nearly twenty thousand years. Reluctantly nodding, Storm tugged the survival pack off her back. Beast's 'corder was safely tucked deep in the center, nestled between her spare uniforms and padded from harm by a week's worth of emergency rations.
The rhythmic syllables patiently repeated as she activated the small hand-held device, and stared at the screen. Their own Terran languages had diverged so greatly in the intervening centuries that Beast's careful work might have been for nothing. There was no guarantee that the Shi'ar multicorder could find any correlation between the ancient Egyptian symbols and this oddly-familiar, musical language...
To her surprise, a series of alien hieroglyphs flashed across the glowing screen. She recognized them from the images Professor Xavier had implanted in her memory. But she must have the translation wrong...they could not possibly be suggesting...
Recognizable modern letters slowly replaced the glyphs, one by one, to form a short cryptic message. Storm stared at Wolverine in bewildered confusion. "It is saying, 'Do you require a body?' " she exclaimed.
Startled, her teammates gaped at her. "What's it talkin' 'bout?" Gambit finally demanded, indignantly swinging his arms wide. "I like da body I got jus' fine!"
As if she was supposed to have all of the answers!  Equally confused, Storm shrugged her shoulders. "I do not know, Gambit!" she conceded. "Perhaps the translation is not as accurate as Beast had hoped. I will ask for clarification."
An anxious frown darkened her aristocratic features as she typed a careful request on the compact keyboard. A moment later, the familiar letters changed into a single interrogative glyph, and a short burst of sound emitted from the 'corder's internal speaker.
Overhead, the patient voice hesitated, then responded with more lyrical syllables. Like the unearthly music she had heard inside the portal corridor, it seemed exquisitely beautiful to her finely-tuned ears.
More symbols flashed across the screen, then gradually resolved themselves into coherent words. This time, however, the message was incomplete--Beast's translator program was apparently still missing several key characters. She uncertainly guessed at the foreign glyphs as she read the message aloud.
"'All visiting...minds...spirits...will be provided with a host body upon request. Do you require a body?' "
Across the room, a large panel suddenly appeared in the blank wall. They spun around and stared as it slid up into the high ceiling. Four large, transparent cylinders became visible as bright lights focused on them.
His reddish-brown eyes widening, Gambit took an instinctive step back. "Dey look jus' like us!" he exclaimed, horrified. "You reckon dey read our minds when we come through da portal?"
Storm stared in disbelief at her own host body, a virtual clone of her own tingling frame. Thank goodness its eyes were closed...she was not sure how she might react if she stared into her own soul!
Could a host body have a soul? She was not certain she even wanted to find out!
Beside her, Wolverine straightened, his sharp claws rasping together. "I ain't so sure I like that!" he rasped. "Make 'em go away, will ya? They're givin' me the creeps!"
His duplicate looked just as irascible as he did, even in its current dormant state. Rogue anxiously clasped her arms around her ribs, as if she was either cold or frightened. Shuddering as an icy finger ran down her own spine, Storm quickly typed an answer into the multicorder.
The panel slid closed again and disappeared back into the featureless, curving wall. Wolverine cast one last baleful glare in its direction, then resumed his restless exploration of the large empty room.
Rogue's eyes suddenly widened. "I wonder if..."
Before she could continue, the alien voice resounded through the chamber again. Hieroglyphs flashed across the multicorder's screen. The pristine walls abruptly darkened, and sparkling lights glittered in intricate patterns on all sides.
"'When you are ready,' " Storm slowly translated, "'please choose your next destination.' What in the world..."
The purpose of the curving walls and domed ceiling suddenly became clear when Gambit eagerly snapped his fingers. "Dat's what dese things are...star charts!" he exclaimed. "Look, mes ami's! Dose brighter sections over dere must be star clusters, an' dere's a nebula...an' see, here's another one!"
His eyes widened in wonder as he slowly turned around and met Storm's startled gaze. "You don' think dere's a portal on every one o' dose worlds, d'you?" he demanded, awed.
The very idea obviously shook their dignified team leader.
Across the room, Wolverine scowled. "It figures!" he snapped. "We travel halfway across the universe, an' what do we find? An intergalactic subway station!"
Rogue barely even heard his sarcastic retort. Her eyes were still fastened on the invisible panel. "She could be anywhere, then," she whispered.
Her despairing protest caught everyone's attention. Startled, they turned to look at her. "Who you talkin' 'bout, chér?" Gambit demanded.
Vivid fear shone in Rogue's green eyes as she slowly met his bewildered gaze. "Carol Danvers," she explained. "She ain't here, so she must've taken one o' those host bodies an' gone somewhere else! She could be anywhere by now!"
Her helpless tears tugged at Gambit's heart. Hoping to comfort her, he laid a reassuring arm around her shoulders. "Ain't nothin' wrong with dat, chér--good riddance t' bad rubbish, nón?" he chided. "Dat woman weren't nothin' but trouble anyhow!"
Rogue impatiently jerked away, her eyes flashing. "Quit patronizin' me, Remy LeBeau!" she flared. "I ain't a little kid! An' I ain't gonna fall apart every time we hit a snag!"
Then she spun away and glared in frustration at the white floor. "I heard what Professor Xavier said, 'bout her maybe takin' my memories in revenge for bein' absorbed into my mind for so long." A heavy sigh escaped her as she guiltily shook her head. "I din't mean for it to happen...it was an accident! An' I tried to tell her that before, only she din't wanta listen! I wanta fix things, an' make 'em right again...only I cain't fix anythin ' if she ain't here!"
Storm encouragingly lifted the multicorder. "Perhaps we can ascertain where she has gone, Rogue," she offered. "Surely the portal must be equipped to record such data!"
"First we'd better find out where we are, 'fore we go chargin' off into the great unknown!" Wolverine retorted. "You're the expert, Storm...got any ideas which one o' these stars is ours?"
Gambit frowned, alarmed by the prospect. "We travel by da stars down in da bayou, but nothin' here looks da same!" he protested.
To her dismay, Storm was forced to agree with him. "Wherever we are," she slowly conceded, "we have traveled so far that our familiar constellations are no longer readily visible. There is no way that I can ascertain our position simply by studying this starmap, detailed as it may be."
Wolverine scowled at her and gestured at the ceiling. "Then we'd better hope that voice o' yours can tell us, or we ain't never gettin' home again!" he snarled.
Storm nodded, and quickly programmed in a new question. Her eyes haunted, Rogue silently followed her every movement. She barely even noticed Gambit's comforting touch as he rubbed her tense shoulders.
"Easy, chér," he murmured in her ear. "Dis ain't your fault. Wolverine always overreact, you know dat. We gonna git home again."
Rogue unhappily evaded his sympathetic gaze. "It ain't that so much, Remy," she admitted, her voice husky with barely-suppressed tears. "I reckon I was hopin' that just comin' here would be enough...if the portal took my memories, they oughta be here waitin' for me!"
Gambit's long fingers tightened on her arms as he hugged her. "Dey might be, chér," he countered. "We get Storm to ask, nón? Den we know for sure."
Rogue didn't look very reassured. "If Carol Danvers took 'em, I gotta go lookin' for her!" she insisted. "But I don't know where to start!"
"There!" Wolverine's triumphant shout startled them both. Turning, they stared at him in surprise. He was pointing at one wall, his long claws gleaming in the dim light. As they watched, a faint dot of light rapidly brightened, pulsating with a dazzling array of colors. Beside it, alien glyphs began to flash in counterpoint to the vivid spectrum.
No matter what their visual range might have been, Storm thought with an appreciative smile, it was sure to get their attention. "Those must be the spacial coordinates," she explained as she logged them into the 'corder.
Wolverine's eyes narrowed in disgust as he compared the tiny dot of light to some of its neighbors. "It's awful small," he sourly grumbled. "Always knew we came from a third-rate system, but that's ridiculous!"
Gambit hid a grin as the star's brilliant glow faded. Unenhanced, it was barely visible among the brighter constellations surrounding it. "C'mon, Wolverine," he teased, "you know dat dynamite come in small packages! Dey ain't never seen nothin' like us 'fore!"
Wolverine snorted, and stalked toward the far end of the long chamber. Storm's lips twitched as she tried to suppress her own amused smile. "I will try to ascertain Carol Danvers' location," she suggested. Her eyes gleaming, she began typing again.
"'Identify current location of previous traveler,' " she absently read as the letters changed to glyphs on her small screen, and the 'corder translated her request into the portal's foreign, musical language.
She could almost understand the audible response now as pure tones cascaded around her, vibrating through her bones. "'Location unknown,' " she automatically answered, briefly glancing at the 'corder for confirmation.
"But that don't make sense!" Rogue protested. "She ain't here--where else could she have gone?"
Wolverine spun around, his claws rasping together, as the star charts faded back into the curving walls. "Looks like they can understand us just fine!" he snarled, venomously glaring at the small multicorder. Behind him, the outline of a door became visible. A moment later, the panel quietly slid aside.
Warm sunlight and a fragrant burst of fresh air cascaded into the room. Despite her instinctive caution, Storm inhaled deeply, a pleased smile lighting her face.
"Mebbe she gone explorin'," Gambit eagerly suggested. "If she ain't gone off-planet, we oughta find her real quick!"
Wolverine was still suspiciously glaring around, his eyes narrowed. "Somethin' ain't right here," he muttered, taking a step away from the door.
"Ah, you worry too much, mon ami!" Gambit scoffed, brushing past him with a dismissive wave. The fresh air smelled clean and invigorating, and the distant mountains seemed to beckon him. Nothing they'd seen so far seemed the least bit threatening. What could possibly go wrong in such a beautiful place? "Ain't nothin' here dat can..."
Without warning, the ground beneath him exploded!
Always gotta be the hero...just had to ignore Wolverine's fine-tuned instincts an' show off...
The soft, scornful voice seemed to ring in Gambit's head for one brief instant. Then he was flying back through the air, and slamming into one of the chamber's curving walls.
"Remy!" Rogue's terrified scream echoed in his ears as he slumped face-down on the floor, and cold darkness slowly enveloped him. Something heavy was sitting on his chest...it was so hard to move...to breathe...and everything was fading away...
Wolverine's claws slashed together as he whipped around. "I knew it was a trap!" he snarled, his black eyes glittering with fury.
"No, Logan!" Storm protested, even as she instinctively moved to Rogue's side, protecting their fallen teammate. "The portal cannot be responsible for this!"
Glowing energy bolts sliced through the air, and she nimbly leaped to one side to avoid them.
Wolverine spared her an angry glare. "Oh, yeah?" he challenged. "Prove it! This don't look like no friendly welcome to me!"
A large, pulsating shadow fell across the mangled doorway. Snarling, he launched himself at it, heedless of the danger. Sparks flew as he collided with a huge glowing mass of energy. He got one quick glimpse of the room spinning around him; then the floor reached up to smash into him. Shaken but undaunted, he dizzily struggled to his knees.
Whatever the creature was, perhaps she could fight fire with fire! Storm quickly spread her arms wide and summoned a vivid barrage of lightning bolts. Energy crackled from her long fingers as she soared into the air, riding a sudden gust of wind.
Nothing was happening! The sizzling beams were shimmering across the entity's dazzling surface...it should be withdrawing in pain...yet it seemed to be absorbing them!
Rogue anxiously glanced up, torn with indecision. It was all happening so fast! Half of their team was already down, and the dust hadn't even settled from that massive explosion!
Wolverine could take care of himself, and Gambit...
No, she couldn't even bear to think it! He'd be okay in a few minutes, he had to be!
In any case, there was nothing she could do to help him right now.
But Storm needed her.
Bracing herself, she soared headlong into the battle.
Several more laser bolts angled through the open doorway. She effortlessly dodged, letting instinct guide her movements as she swooped in front of her friend, drawing the enemy fire away. Scorch marks blackened the chamber walls behind her. But there was no time to regret whatever damage was being inflicted on the portal. They'd figure out a way to patch it up later, after things had calmed down a little.
Another bulky shadow darkened the doorway, and Wolverine resolutely gathered himself. If only his legs didn't feel so shaky! Still, when had that ever mattered? Protecting the team was the important thing, no matter what the cost...
The bizarre-looking alien was barely through the door, weapon drawn, when he soared through the air. But his long, razor-sharp claws barely made a dent in the creature's thick, furry hide! Snarling, he clung more tightly to its massive, muscular shoulders. Every creature had a weak spot--he just had to find it! And fast!
Before he could jump free again, it spun around and slammed him against the wall with frightening ease. Stunned, Wolverine slid to the floor, blearily shaking his head.
The alien looked like a giant, walking lion! Could this be one of the creatures that the Sphinx had originally been modeled after? Deeply-ingrained respect for that awesome mystical shrine made Storm hesitate.
Then she shook her head. Its origin was irrelevant...it was about to kill her partner! She would apologize later--if necessary--after she had lured it away from Logan!
Her fingers spread wide, she launched another barrage of lightning bolts through the air. This time her attack had some noticeable effect--the huge alien staggered slightly, and amazement darkened its slanted golden eyes. Then it swiftly recovered and whirled around, snarling in outraged fury.
She was too close! Before she could dodge, a brilliant beam of energy caught her firmly in its grip and hurled her back.
Rogue just barely managed to catch her as she tumbled to the floor, unconscious. Yelling, Wolverine threw himself at the creature's broad back again. His claws sank deep into its right shoulder, just above its thick protective vest.
Its long white talons extended, the infuriated marauder reached back and savagely hurled Wolverine across the room. The entire chamber vibrated as he crashed into the far wall and slid to the floor, motionless.
He was still alive, despite the jagged fractures in the sturdy panel above him...the deep gash in his arm was already healing. Rogue gently settled Storm to the floor a few feet away and spun back around to face her adversary, eyes narrowed with hatred.
For one long, breathless moment, neither of them moved. She could feel the Llrrta's golden eyes disdainfully sweeping over her, judging, evaluating. Was it assuming that she was as vulnerable as her fallen companions?
Well, she'd show it a thing or two!
"Okay, big boy!" she taunted, floating back up into the air. "Looks like it's jus' you an' me! Think you're bad enough t' take me down?"
The furious challenge in her voice needed no interpreter. The Llrrta snarled a belligerent response, and bared its white fangs in a wide, ferocious grin. A grim smile curved Rogue's own lips as it carelessly tossed its weapon aside and flexed its large, muscular arms.
"Well, you asked for it," she muttered. "Can't say I din't warn ya..."
Gritting her teeth, she pulled her gloves off and shoved them into her wide belt. Yet before she could swoop down and grab the bristling Llrrta, the glowing energy cloud darted up behind her. She whirled around...
...but it was already too late. Glittering tendrils rapidly coiled around her, forming a shimmering, impenetrable net.
She couldn't break free!
And it was tightening like strangleweed, cutting off her breath every time she tried to struggle!
A soft chittering sound caught her attention. Her body felt like it was encased in lead, but she managed to turn her head as two more aliens cautiously entered the chamber. A dark-furred Llrrta quickly joined the bronze-furred one, its jaws wide in a triumphant grin.
The smaller alien, which reminded her of a giant, sentient praying mantis, briefly hesitated. Its triangular head tilted back and forth as it surveyed the damaged room. It was wearing some kind of intricate body armor, she realized, as it crossed the room and bent down by Gambit's side.
She wanted to yell a vigorous protest, but her throat felt paralyzed...like the rest of her body. Jus' like a fly caught in a spider's web, she thought as consciousness began to slip away, wrapping her in darkness.
The mantis was carefully rolling Gambit over with two of its delicate-looking claw-hands. She already knew what she was going to see...hadn't she sensed it the moment she'd touched his motionless body a few minutes ago?
But nothing could prepare her for the awful gaping hole in his sturdy chest armor.
"Remy, no!" she moaned. Hot tears abruptly flooded her eyes, half-blinding her.
Her horrified whisper was barely audible as the mantis glanced up at its two companions, interrupting their low-pitched exchange with a series of sharp, angry clicks and whistles.
Diverted, they turned and growled something that sounded vaguely like a question. The mantis soberly tilted its head from side to side in an almost-human gesture, and released its firm grip on Gambit's shoulder.
Dead...he was dead...
Then the darkness closed around her as the alien rose and moved in Storm's direction.
The Blackbird seemed entirely too quiet as the X-Men left Egypt's vast deserts behind, and somberly returned home.
It was so strange, Jean mused, glancing back at her silent teammates. She'd been on missions before where only part of the team was present, yet she'd never felt the same sense of emptiness before.
Storm's calm serenity--Gambit and Rogue's cheerful banter--even Wolverine's surly attitude seemed doubly precious to her, now that they were gone.
Not forever, she quickly reassured herself.
Only...what if something happened to them over there? What if someone got hurt, or they couldn't find a way to come back home?
She wished she could have convinced Scott to join the team--she couldn't shake the awful feeling that their skills were badly needed. But he'd refused to consider it. And she could understand his viewpoint, she reluctantly conceded. Professor Xavier's dream of creating a world where mutants and humans could peacefully co-exist was too important to abandon. Someone had to stay at home, and protect everything they'd worked so hard to achieve.
Even now, Professor Xavier was in telepathic contact with Cerebro, verifying that no danger awaited them back at the mansion. The school's defenses were excellent, but any security system could be breached under the right circumstances. All of them were going to have to stay on high alert until their teammates returned.
She briefly envied Beast--unlike the others, he could lose himself in his research, and shut out any melancholy emotions until a later time. The past three days were clearly starting to wear on him, though. He hadn't joined them for dinner once and, if she knew him at all, he probably hadn't wasted any time on sleep, either. He must be exhausted...he'd been blankly staring at the same screen on his laptop computer for the past two hours.
Carly and Jubilee were sitting nearby, alternately peering over Beast's broad shoulders and staring out the window at the ocean far beneath them. Not that there was much to see--they were a good two hours from home, even at their current velocity. One of these days, she'd have to talk with Professor Xavier about installing a few more computer terminals. Despite the Blackbird's awesome speed, longer trips could be dreadfully boring, especially for the younger students.
The sudden buzzing of an incoming message startled her. Surely the team couldn't have already returned...
Scott quickly leaned forward to snap on the small viewscreen. Behind them, Jean half-sensed the break in Professor Xavier's concentration as Beast touched his arm. Jubilee quickly followed Carly up into the cockpit, her black eyes gleaming with suppressed hope.
"Moira?" Startled, Scott sat up straighter as Moira MacTaggert's familiar image materialized and anxiously stared up at them. She hadn't looked that frightened since her son, Kevin, had broken free and escaped from Muir Island several months ago! Surely the impetuous teenager hadn't done anything that stupid again, not after all of Professor Xavier's intensive training!
"Scott? Jean?" Relaxing, Moira sighed with undisguised relief. "Is Charles with ye? I must speak t' him!"
An anxious frown creased Xavier's forehead as he quickly moved into view. "What's wrong, Moira?" he demanded. "Is Kevin all right?" Despite his best efforts, he could not entirely hide the deep concern in his crisp voice. Moira MacTaggert and her mutant son would always hold a special place in his heart. Nothing--not even her impending marriage to Sean Cassidy--would ever change that.
As if she could sense his troubled emotions, Moira managed a reassuring smile. "Oh, aye, Kevin's fine, Charles," she promised. "He's been behavin' himself quite well since ye left."
Then she scowled and stepped back, allowing him a closer view of her laboratory. The normally-immaculate facility was a shambles. Tables had been overturned, instruments were scattered and broken on the floor. A fragment of blue sky was visible through the shattered remains of one wall.
"It's that Sinister who's the problem!" she bitterly clarified. "His men sabotaged our power systems, an' broke him free!"
Xavier's clear blue eyes widened in alarm. "Sinister has escaped?"
"Aye!" Moira nodded, angry color flooding her fair cheeks. "An' he tore apart half o' the island in the process!"
A welter of conflicting emotions chased each other across her face as she hesitated, biting her bottom lip. Then she leaned forward again, pleading in her eyes. "I hate t' ask the favor, Charles," she confessed, "but...well, could ye an' yer team help us out for a wee bit? I've patients here, an' I canna be without power for long!"
Beast vigorously nodded as he touched Xavier's shoulder. "I would be glad to offer my assistance, Professor!" he exclaimed.
Scott and Jean glanced at each other, and she was relieved to see that they were finally in agreement again. "I think we'd all welcome a little activity right now, Professor," Scott ruefully confessed. "Shall I reset our coordinates?"
Before the worried telepath could respond, Jubilee impulsively spoke up. "The Sphinx Team probably won't be back for a few days yet. And even if they do get home sooner, we can leave them a message at the mansion, telling them where we are! Please, Professor?" she begged.
Jubilee's desire to return to Muir Island had far more to do with seeing Kevin again than with helping repair Sinister's wanton destruction. Still, it was good to know that his students were once again in agreement--their temporary discord had disturbed him tremendously.
"Muir Island is only a short distance from our current location," Xavier easily conceded. "We should be there shortly."
Then he hesitated, his lips pursed in concentration. "Can you contact Morph?" he urged.
A more genuine smile brightened Moira's face as she glanced over her shoulder and waved to someone out of the viewer's range. "Aye, he's already here," she warmly reassured Xavier. A moment later, the polymorph's youthful face appeared behind her. "He an' Kevin have been spendin' lots o' time together since ye left," she added. "They've been busy puttin' things back t' rights since Sinister an' his men escaped."
A wide grin replaced Morph's grim frown the moment he saw his former teammates. "Hi, guys!" he eagerly exclaimed. "You comin' to crash our little party?"
Beast wryly chuckled, amused by the lad's ingenuous enthusiasm. "It looks as if someone else has already beaten us to it!" he countered. "I do hope you are planning on leaving something for us to do, my friend!"
Morph ruefully grinned as he gestured around the damaged room. "Sure thing, Beast!" he promised.
Then he sobered. "Even with your help, it's going to take us a few days to repair all the damage. And I've got a whole building saved just for Wolverine!" he teased, brightening again. "Say, where is he, anyway?"
Scott scowled down at the viewscreen. "It's a long story," he sourly muttered.
Morph's brown eyes widened in alarm. Yet before he could press for details, Xavier soothingly lifted a hand. "I will explain everything as soon as we arrive," he assured the distraught young mutant. Then he met Moira's anxious gaze, and a faint smile curved his lips. "We will be there as soon as possible."
Moira's answering smile was warm with gratitude. "Thank ye, Charles," she murmured. "We appreciate yer help."
The viewscreen went dark just as someone offscreen caught her attention. Her worried image remained for one more moment, then faded into darkness.
Xavier sat motionless, lost in his own distant thoughts, as Scott briskly programmed their new course into the navi-computer. The Blackbird instantly tilted, veering north toward Scotland's rocky coast and the smaller spur of land that housed Muir Island's famed mutant laboratories. The noon sun shimmered on the ocean beneath the plane's dark wings as fire shot out of the rear thrusters.
A pod of curious dolphins rose to the surface as a deep, muted roar shivered through the rippling waves, but the sky was already empty. Chittering in surprise, they leaped through the air, then nimbly dove back down into the cool water.
Sparkling ripples slowly expanded and vanished into the waves as they disappeared without a trace.
Click here to read Episode IV of
"The Sphinx Saga" - "Sinister Games"
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