Part II

Chapter 4

           'Only I can undo the damage that has been done here!'
           Once again, Wolverine stared at Storm in suspicious disbelief.  "What damage?" he demanded.   "What're you talkin' about?"
           Storm guiltily avoided his penetrating glare.  "According to legend, the Goddess and the Storm God were so closely linked that they could not function without each other's support.  It was said that, if both remained at Teotihuacan, evil could never destroy it.  I did not believe the legends...then."
           The ground around them suddenly trembled, as if in response to her hesitant confession.  Loose stones clattered to the dirt floor.  Storm's eyes widened in fear as a faint roaring sound echoed through the earth.
           "I was wrong!" she cried, flinging her hands up in the air.  "I was young and foolish!"
           Wolverine grabbed her arms, steadying her as another tremor rocked the floor beneath them.  "Storm, what did you do?" he yelled.  "What did you take from here?"
           Fear shone in her eyes as she slowly unfastened her high collar, and drew out a long, finely-woven cord.  A small carved image of the Teotihuacano Goddess dangled at the end, glittering in the dim light.   "It belonged to the high priest--its mate was lost in the ruins eons ago!   I felt it speak to me, Logan!" she insisted.  "It helped to show me who and what I should become!  I could not leave it behind!"
           Wolverine's eyes narrowed.   "An' you've been carryin' it around all this time?  That's some good luck charm!"
           "It's more than a good luck charm!"
           The hoarse, frightened voice behind them made them both spin around.  Wolverine's claws flashed in the dim light as he defensively raised both fists.  "Who are you, an' what're you doin' down here?" he snarled.  "Talk fast, bub!"
           The old man jumped back, his eyes huge with terror.  "I am...only an archeologist!" he stammered, instinctively reaching for his dusty wire-rimmed glasses as they threatened to slide off his narrow, dignified face.  "Don't kill me--I mean you no harm!"
           "An archaeologist, huh?" Wolverine ominously stalked forward.  "Are you the one who let that thing loose?"
           "Logan, wait!" Storm laid a soothing hand on his arm.  "I believe I know him!  Yes!" she added, her eyes widening with surprise.  "You are Dr. Amaldio!  I worked with you one summer, many years ago!   You took me down into the sacred chamber beneath the Pyramid of the Sun!"
           His glasses forgotten, Amaldio stared at her in numb disbelief.  "Yes, I remember!" he whispered.   "Ororo!  How could I have forgotten?  You were so desperate to learn the ways of the old gods!"
           Wolverine grimaced.   "Looks like we're gonna be learnin' a lot more than we planned on!" he growled, as another tremor shook the chamber.  "We've gotta get out of here before this place caves in on us!"
           "This way!"   Amaldio gestured back down the long corridor behind him.  "We can reach the back entrance through this passage!"
           "Take us there, Doctor!" Storm briskly ordered.  "There is no time to lose!"
           Before the old archaeologist could take more than a few steps, she swooped up behind him and caught him around the waist.  "Wolverine, hurry!" she urged as she soared through the low, cramped hallway.
           "I'm right behind ya, darlin'!" he fervently assured her.  Behind them, a heavy crash echoed through the catacombs.  They both felt the rush of wind as part of the ceiling collapsed.   "C'mon, move it!  Next time we might not get so lucky!"
           "It can sense the power of the Goddess through the amulet you are wearing!" Amaldio yelled, his eyes watering as choking dust clogged the air.  "Only you can face it!  But you must have its mate--only then will you have the strength to defeat it!"
           "Don't you count on it!" Wolverine snarled from behind them.  "She's got me--that'll hafta be good enough!"
           Bright light suddenly streamed through the corridor.  "There! The entrance is there!" Amaldio eagerly cried.  "Hurry!"
           Another resounding crash deafened them, and the old man reflexively cringed.  "I told them to leave the tablet alone!" he cried as a brightly patterned shape soared past the opening, roaring in triumph.  "Young fools, they had no idea what they were doing! Look out!"
           Storm reversed course just as an immense serpentine head, vividly marked in electric pinks and blues, smashed against the ground.  Dirt and rock showered down on them.
           The blast sent Storm and Amaldio reeling back against the far wall.  Undaunted, Wolverine dodged a falling boulder and launched himself at the long, monstrous jaw.  Sparks flew as his gleaming claws slashed through the air.
           With a bellow of outrage, the head abruptly withdrew.  "It ain't gonna be gone for long!" Wolverine yelled.  "C'mon!"
           Her dusky face pale, Storm staggered to her feet and pulled Amaldio upright.  The elderly scientist seemed in remarkably good shape, given their current predicament.  Then he soberly met her wide eyes.  "You must leave the amulet here!" he pleaded.  "It's our only chance to escape!  As long as you're wearing it, he will know that you're still alive!"
           Wolverine urgently gripped her arm.  "He may be right, Storm!  If that thing can track you, it's gonna keep chasin' us!  There's no other way we're gonna get close enough to kill it!"
           Storm stared at Logan in silent anguish.  The amulet was a part of her very soul!  She could not give it up!
           Before she could protest, he slid a single claw into the small knot and neatly sliced it open.  The amulet and braided cord dropped into his outstretched hand.  "We'll come back for it, I swear!" he promised.  And he carefully retied the knot, then laid it inside a small niche in the wall.  "See, it's safe here.  Now let's get goin', before that thing comes back!"
           He grabbed her hand, and gently pulled her back into the dimly-lit passage.  Amaldio obediently followed, shuddering as another raucous cry echoed through the catacombs.
           "Let it think it's won!" Wolverine grimly muttered as they retraced their steps.  "I ain't through yet!"
           "We have to get to the Serpent's pyramid!" Amaldio exclaimed, nervously glancing behind them.  "I must retrieve the tablet!"
           Wolverine abruptly stopped and glared at the gray-haired archaeologist.  "How about you tellin' us just what's goin' on first?" he demanded.  "How did you guys conjure up that thing?  An' what's been happenin' to Storm an' me ever since we got here?"
           Amaldio bit his bottom lip as he nervously toyed with his glasses.  "I wish I knew!" he insisted.   "I was there when they found the tablet, and I even helped translate it!   But I never thought they would take it down into the sacred chamber!  Crazy, power-hungry fools!"
           Wolverine wasn't in the mood for compassion.  "So what happened?" he pressed.
           "W-we'd all set up housekeeping down in the village," the scientist stammered, waving toward the western edge of the sprawling settlement.  "I went to bed around midnight--I was so busy cataloguing our new finds that I forgot about the time!  Everything was quiet, so I thought I was the last one to turn in!
           "A few hours later, there was this awful rumbling sound!  I thought it was an earthquake!  My first thought was about the excavation, so I ran back as fast as I could!"   His face pale, he stared at the dirt floor.  "That's when it happened--the Serpent pyramid started glowing!
           "The next thing I knew, everyone was running and screaming and...and the Serpent was there, chasing them down the Avenue!  I don't think I want to know what happened to them," he soberly concluded, his voice hushed with dread.
           The muted rumbling was fading now.  Wolverine listened for a moment, then briskly motioned down the corridor.   "Let's go," he rasped.  "We've gotta get out of here.  You doin' okay, Storm?"
           The Egyptian princess sternly quelled her steadily-rising fear.  They must protect Amaldio!  "I will survive," she whispered.  "Can we get through this way?"
           Wolverine sniffed, his black eyes glittering.  "Fresh air!  Smells like your god-buddy broke through up ahead!" he assured them.  "Let's go!"
           Relieved, Storm looped an arm around each of their waists and sped down the low corridor.  Blinding light dazzled them as they emerged into the ruins of a large chamber.  The Sun pyramid's huge bulk towered high above them.  Without warning or apology, Storm instantly launched up toward the welcoming sunlight, gulping in huge breaths of warm, clean air.
           "Ororo, look!"    Amaldio eagerly stared down at the glowing temples as his eyes adjusted to the brilliance.  "They're beautiful!"
           Wolverine rolled his eyes.   "Not you, too!" he snarled, exasperated.  "Put us down, Storm! Now!"
           "I need the tablet!" Amaldio protested.  "Let me down near the Serpent's mouth!"
           "The what?"  Then Wolverine saw where the old archaeologist was urgently pointing.   Centuries before, a large stucco platform had been built in front of the Serpent pyramid, obscuring most of the intricate carvings along the outer wall.  Recent excavations had exposed a concealed entry at the base of the massive structure.  It did, indeed, look like a huge, gaping serpent's mouth.  The uncanny similarity to the gigantic head which had tried to smash them was unnerving!
           Storm obediently swooped closer, steadier now that the terrifying darkness was behind her.
           A furious roar suddenly shook the sky behind them.  "It's seen us!" Wolverine yelled.  "Hurry, Storm!"
           Without hesitation, she plunged into the open, sharp-fanged opening.  In contrast to the gloomy catacombs beneath the Sun pyramid, this corridor was wide and brightly lit.  Storm briefly hesitated in midair, staring around in startled wonder.  "What causes the walls to glow?" she murmured, bewildered.
           Amaldio reluctantly shook his head.  "I wish I could tell you!" he confessed.  "We only opened the Serpent's mouth two days ago.  If I'd just had more time..."
           "I don't care what makes it tick!" Wolverine rasped, suspiciously glaring around.  "Let's just get this tablet of yours and get back outa here!  This place gives me the creeps!"
           Storm gingerly settled to the floor.  "Do not touch anything, Logan," she cautioned.  "We do not know how the Feathered Serpent's energy could affect us."
           Wolverine nodded.   "Yeah!  I've been gettin' enough weird flashes to last me a lifetime!" he snarled.
           "Flashes?"   Amaldio curiously glanced at them, his eyes alight with concern.  "What kind of flashes?"
           "Glimpses of another place, another time," Storm soberly explained.  "We are both present, but...changed somehow!  It is as if we are staring at reflections of each other!"
           "Only they're warped ninety degrees to reality!" Wolverine bitterly interjected.  "It don't make any sense!"
           The color seemed to drain from the elderly archaeologist's face.  Shaken, he stared at them for a long moment, then weakly motioned for them to follow him down the passage.  "You must see this," he insisted.
           Another furious roar, muted by the thick stone walls, shook the air around them.  "This'd better not take long!" Wolverine warned.  "There's no tellin' how long this place'll stay standin' if that thing decides to crash our little party!"
           Amaldio cast another frightened look over his shoulder as the pyramid shuddered.  Then he ducked down a steep stairway.  "This way!  Hurry!"
           Wolverine and Storm exchanged uneasy glances.  "C'mon, let's get this over with!" Logan finally grumbled, supportively gripping her arm.  "You gonna be okay?"
           Storm slowly nodded.   "It is strange, but this place does not press down on me in the same way that the catacombs did."
           Wolverine blinked, startled.   For just an instant, the corridor seemed to shiver, expand...
           A gold wedding band glittered on Storm's dark hand as she reassuringly clasped his shoulder.  He touched the newest tear in her worn jumpsuit.  "Gonna have to get that fixed, if we ever get a break from this damned war!" he chided, his voice husky with exasperated affection.   "Good thing you weren't hurt!"
           She gently smiled down at him.  "How could I be, with you at my side?  We make an excellent team, even the General thinks so.  Perhaps when the war is over..."
           Logan pensively frowned.   "Yeah.  Someday.  C'mon, we'd better get moving."
           "Ororo!"   Amaldio's thin voice, oddly out of place, echoed through the devastated war zone.   "Hurry!"


Chapter 5

           "The tablet speaks of the final conflict between Teotihuacan's three principle gods," Amaldio explained as he led Wolverine and Storm down the last passageway.  "After four hundred years of peace and prosperity, the Feathered Serpent began to hunger for new conquest, new battles.  Trade was good between the neighboring peoples, so the Teotihuacanos didn't want to wage a war that might jeopardize their profitable commerce.
           "They appealed to the Storm God and his Goddess," he added, nervously hesitating outside a small, dimly-lit chamber.  "So when the Feathered Serpent finally got his war, it was between his armies and the Storm God's armies.  Their civilization was systematically burned and destroyed, a piece at a time."
           "And in the end?" Storm impatiently prompted.  From time to time, the glowing walls still trembled as their ancient nemesis hurled himself against the pyramid.  So many tons of heavy rock perched above her head, just waiting to fall and crush them...
           She tried to hide the long shudder that swept through her at the very thought.
           Wolverine supportively touched her arm, and she forced a grateful half-smile.  How fortunate she was to have such a caring, compassionate partner at her side, even if he would never admit to those qualities himself.  Still...
           "In the end," Amaldio heavily finished, "the Storm God and his Goddess were forced to contain the Feathered Serpent--somewhere else.  Exactly where is not quite clear, but from the descriptions they gave, it was not on this world!
           "However," he sighed, "the final battle so weakened the two remaining gods that they were forced to retreat to a place of safety--again, somewhere else, wherever they had first come from.   They left the Teotihuacanos to their own devices.  And their proud civilization fell apart within a matter of decades."
           Wolverine suspiciously sniffed at the still, energy-charged air.  "So what's in there?" he demanded, his eyes narrowing.  "Some kinda gateway into another dimension?"
           Again Amaldio paled.   "I do not really know!" he whispered, his fingers trembling as he tried to clean his glasses on a corner of his shirt.  "The things we saw in there, things that could not possibly have happened..."
           "Not in this lifetime, anyway?" Wolverine concluded.  "Sounds like what Storm an' I've been fightin' against!  Well, c'mon, let's see it!  Then we're gettin' outa here!   Ain't no way we can fight that damned thing from underground!"
           For a moment they thought Amaldio might refuse.  Then his thin shoulders sagged, and he reluctantly stepped back.  "Do not think!" he insisted as they clasped hands and stepped through the narrow doorway.  "It will tempt you..."
           Storm was barely through the door when a massive explosion threw her backward.  But the pyramid's heavy stone wall was gone.
           "Logan!" she yelled as another brilliant flash rolled her over in the damp grass.  An enormous metal foot crashed down beside her, shaking the earth.  "Logan, watch out!"
           Wolverine nimbly dodged a steady barrage of energy bolts, alternately leaping and rolling among the scattered debris, until he was close enough to strike.  Storm shakily crawled away from the wreckage as his long, gleaming claws sank deep into the immense cyborg's leg.   "Hey, tin woodsman!  I'm sending you back to Oz--in pieces!"
           Wolverine's words were right...his frenzied attack was right...yet something was terribly wrong!  Something about his fierce words and actions did not fit together...
           Storm lurched to her feet and summoned the powerful western winds.  Ever obedient, they swiftly lifted her into the air.  She aimed a tremendous explosion of lightning at the Sentinel's metal head.
           The Sentinels were totally devoid of emotion--the General had impressed that upon them time and time again.  Yet something evil and malicious seemed to radiate from this one's blank face as it turned and lifted a steely hand in her direction.  Before she could evade the blow, a violent blast of energy sent her tumbling to the ground far below.
           "Storm!"   Wolverine's terrified voice echoed through the falling darkness as the ground reached up to hit her.  "Don't you leave me!"
           Then he was beside her, cradling her face in his strong hands.  The Sentinel was lying nearby, sparking from a dozen different lethal gashes.
           "Storm!"   Unbearable anguish was etched into his rugged face as he bent over her, holding her close.
           Life energy, like tingling wildfire, sluggishly moved through Storm's body again.  Her fingers weakly curled around his broad shoulders.  "Do not worry," she whispered, mustering a wan smile.  "You are stuck with me for a little while longer."
           "Ah, Storm, don't do that to me again!" he fervently muttered, kissing her.  "Life wouldn't be worth livin' without you..."
           Another smile curved her lips, stronger this time.  "I love you, too, Logan," she quietly assured him.  Their wedding bands slid together as they clasped hands, momentarily ignoring the brutal carnage around them.
           Then Storm's eyes were drawn to the shattered Sentinel nearby.  "Wolverine, something is wrong here," she anxiously murmured.  "Did you not sense the sinister intentions of that cyborg?  That was not a normal machine!"
           Wolverine hesitated for a long moment, then slowly nodded.  "Yeah, I think you're right!  You don't think Mastermold's done somethin' new to 'em, do you?  That's all we'd need!"
           Storm sat up and stared at the war-swept plain.  "No, it is more than that!" she insisted, bewildered.   "Look around, Logan!  This is not our world!  This is not our battle!"
           Wolverine fiercely glared around.  Everything looked the same to him!
           And yet...
           'Do not think!  It will tempt you...'
           The ghostly voice seemed to echo from a million miles away.
           Don't think?   How could he not think?
           And what could possibly tempt him?  There was nothing important in his life, nothing that could be used against him...
           Except for Storm!
           The incredible love that he and Storm shared was all that had kept him alive, kept him fighting, year after year!   If he ever lost her...
           "Wolverine, you must fight it!"  Storm's voice seemed distant now, too, like the warm touch of her hands.  Reality seemed to shiver around him as glowing, jagged golden gashes tore through the night sky.  Storm was on her knees beside him, her long fingers clutching at his shoulders.
           "Don't you leave me!"  His desperate cry seemed to echo through eternity itself as bright light surrounded him again, dazzling his dilated eyes.  "Storm!"
           "I am here, Logan!"   Storm gently wiped the moisture from his cheeks as his hands closed around hers.   "Hold onto me--I am real!"
           Gradually Wolverine's pounding heart slowed.  "Storm?"  His voice was husky now, hoarse with raw emotion.  "What happened?"  Embarrassed by his outburst, he couldn't quite meet her steady gaze.
           "I do not know," she soberly murmured.  "For just a moment we were somewhere else...some other life, perhaps.  A temptation, indeed, for the unbelievable love we shared there!"
           Startled, he cautiously met her eyes.  They were dark again, warm with gentle compassion.  "You felt it, too?" he whispered.
           Storm smiled, and lightly touched his cheek again.  "How could I not, when it so completely consumed both our souls?  It explains much, does it not, Logan?"
           He glared at the glowing stone floor, shaken.  "It wasn't real," he snarled.  "It wasn't our lives!"
           "On the contrary," Amaldio quietly objected.  Startled, they glanced up to see him standing nearby, a large stone tablet cradled in his arms.  "It was very real.  Look at this, both of you."
           The deeply-etched glyphs made no sense to Wolverine, and little more to Storm.  Still, they obediently bent closer as Amaldio's thin finger traced line after line of ancient lore.
           "For centuries, the chamber beneath the Sun Pyramid was used only for holy ceremonies," he explained in a distant, pensive voice.  "The Teotihuacanos respected the earth, and knew of the awesome powers contained in its depths.
           "According to this tablet, an identical chamber resides beneath the Moon Pyramid.  There," and his voice slowed as he struggled to read the baffling markings, "the Storm God and his Goddess first emerged to this land, and there they returned when the final battles ceased.
           "From what I can gather, each of the chambers, when properly used, functions as a...a gateway, if you will, into other slices of reality!" he concluded, surprise coloring his aging face.   "I don't know why you've been experiencing the other-world outside of this chamber--that has never happened before.  Nevertheless, what you felt and perceived was a reality--somewhere out there!"  And he vaguely gestured up, toward the hidden sky.  "For another Ororo Monroe and another Logan Wolverine."
           The linking of his real name and code name startled Logan for a moment.  If only he had a real last name, or a true memory of his past!  Would that other Wolverine know of the missing pieces?  Would he know the truth behind his jumbled, impossible nightmares?
           And Storm...over there, she'd loved him with a staggering intensity that he knew could never be matched here, even if her heart still yearned in his direction.
           As if she could sense the direction his frenzied thoughts were flowing, Storm reassuringly gripped his arm again.   "Have we not always been bonded to each other, Logan, in some fashion?" she murmured in a low, gentle voice.  "We need not return to that place to know the truth of it.  A part of us will always remember, and cherish that reality."
           Logan flinched away from her calm, quiet words.  "I'm tired of always losin' the women I love!" he retorted, his dark eyes burning with impotent fury.  "First Mariko, then Jean, an' now you?  Dammit, Storm, when's it gonna be my turn?   Our turn?"
           She regretfully averted her eyes.  "Do you think that I have not yearned for an everlasting love just as you have?  I, too, share that loss, Logan," she assured him.  "But our place is here!  There are people who need us!  Amaldio needs us!" she resolutely added, gesturing at the silent archaeologist.  "There are times, my dearest friend, when we must put aside our personal feelings!"
           Amaldio soberly watched them, hiding his deep sympathy behind an impartial mask.  He had once loved a girl of unsurpassing beauty...and had been forced to give her up in order to save her life.
           He remembered.  And he understood.
           "I believe I know of a way to destroy the Feathered Serpent," he quietly interjected into the charged silence.  "It has not pursued us in here because it fears being forced to return to its other-world.   But there may be another way."
           Wolverine's long claws rasped free of their sheaths as he released Storm and spun around.  "A way to kill it?" he demanded.
           "Perhaps," Amaldio hedged.  "The Storm God and his Goddess were able to wound the Serpent in the final battle.  Weakened, it crept back into its chamber--this chamber--to heal itself.  It did not know that they had laid a simple trap which would banish it from this place forever!"  His clear gray eyes seemed to glitter with triumph for a moment.
           "Huh!" Wolverine snorted, contemptuously rolling his eyes.  "They didn't do a very good job!"
           Amaldio's shoulders fell.   "Perhaps they did too good a job," he wryly countered, renewing his grip on the heavy tablet.  "In their victory, the Storm God and his Goddess allowed their people to detail out the exact process by which they defeated the Serpent.
           "When my students found the tablet, they attempted to reverse the process...as a purely theoretical exercise," he wearily added.  "None of them believed in the old tales.   And now they are dead.  They have paid in full measure for their folly."
           Wolverine's eyes narrowed as he stared at the old man.  "You said there was another way," he insisted.   "That thing's gettin' impatient up there.  Before too long, it's gonna bring down the entire temple!"
           "Yes, you are right," Amaldio confessed.  "Another blow like that last one..."
           Wolverine straightened, all his senses alert.  "You've got awful good hearin'," he retorted.   "Now what's that other way?"
           Amaldio stared at the tablet in his arms, as if trying to divine some special knowledge from its bewildering hieroglyphs.  "If the Serpent could be wounded again, and the access to this chamber was blocked," he finally suggested, "it would have nowhere to go.   Perhaps it could be killed before it could regain its strength."
           "But in order to wound it..."
           Storm hesitated, appalled, then resolutely braced herself.  "You are right, of course.  There may be no other way."
           Wolverine's eyes widened as he grabbed her arm.  "No way, Storm!" he protested.  "You ain't gonna offer yourself up as bait for that damned snake!  It's too dangerous!"
           Storm forced a wan smile.   "Wolverine, only I can reach it in its own element," she chided.   "If I can stun it and knock it to the ground, you will have the sole pleasure of killing it!  If not...I am counting on you to keep Dr. Amaldio safe from harm.   The knowledge that only he possesses is invaluable, and must not be lost!"
           Amaldio quickly met her steady gaze, startled by her meaningful tone.  Something vital seemed to pass between them...something that Wolverine missed and bitterly resented.
           "An' how're you plannin' on doin' that?" he demanded.  "Gonna fly right up to it an' smack it across the face?"
           Another fleeting smile curved Storm's lips.  "Actually, that was exactly what I intended.  Now let us hurry--there is no more time to waste."


Chapter 6

           "I can't just let her fight that thing alone!" Wolverine protested as Storm bravely spread her arms wide and summoned a brisk wind.  Her wing-like cape billowed out around her as she swiftly rose into the clear blue sky.  "There's gotta be somethin' we can do!"
           Amaldio spared the wiry Canadian a keen glance.  "She is the Goddess," he murmured in a distant, cryptic voice.  "She must do what only she can face."
           Incensed, Wolverine spun around, his claws clashing together.   "Enough mumbo-jumbo!" he snarled.  "Storm's not a Goddess!  She's just..."  Then he whirled away again, his eyes burning with emotions that he couldn't find the words to express.
           "Your soul-mate?" Amaldio suggested, daring to lay a compassionate hand on Wolverine's shoulder.   "Perhaps, in another life--another universe.
           "You have suffered much loss in your long life, my friend," he added.  "Be grateful that you will always carry the memory of that eternal love with you, even if it is not meant to be, in this world."
           Wolverine suspiciously glared at Amaldio, startled by the old man's uncanny perception.  "How do you know so much about me?" he rasped, jerking away.  "Even I don't know most o' what's stored in my head!  How could you?"
           Amaldio calmly smiled.   "You were not alone in the sacred chamber," he reminded Logan.   "I could not see the world you were experiencing, but I could feel the intensity of your emotions."
           Wolverine reluctantly lowered his guard, mollified by the archaeologist's sober explanation.  "I still say there's gotta be somethin' we can do to help her!" he muttered.  "Anythin'!"
           Amaldio hesitated, thoughtfully staring at his wiry companion.  Logan had been granted a rare glimpse of nirvana--a place where he belonged, where he shared a timeless love that most men would die for.  And his yearning to return to the other-world was still sharp and intense.
           Which side would win out--his need for Storm's love there or his need to protect her here?
           "Are you willing to destroy your only link with that world?" he finally demanded.  "Once the portal is gone, you will never be able to return."
           Wolverine paled at the thought.  Sure, the other-world had its problems, lots of 'em!  He and Storm were engaged in an all-out war against the mutant-hating humans!   Any moment could see one of them dead, lost forever!
           But Storm loved him there, more than life itself!  And he loved her...
           A raucous cry distracted him from his frustrated thoughts.  The Serpent had finally glimpsed Storm's slender white body rising on a whirlwind of energy-charged air.  The vividly-marked feathers around its face flared in brilliant fury.  Long, leathery wings extended from its sinuous body as it hovered, golden eyes malevolently glowing.
           An icy fist clutched at Wolverine's chest.  He couldn't let Storm face that thing alone!  Claws scraping together, he resolutely met Amaldio's clear gray eyes.  "C'mon!" he growled.  "Let's get started!"

• • • • •

           The Serpent was beautiful!
           Storm momentarily hesitated in midair, her eyes widening in awed wonder.  All the murals, all the colorful paintings scattered around the city's walls, had never prepared her for this!  How could she possibly destroy anything so uniquely exquisite?
           The Serpent abruptly ducked its head in an aerial mockery of humility.  "You have changed much, Goddess!" it confided, its voice oddly mellow and smooth.  Somehow she had expected that, if it could talk at all, it would sound more like the terran snake it resembled.  Then she realized that it was inserting its thoughts directly into her mind.
           Telepathy.    After long association with Jean Gray and Professor Xavier, such intimate mental contact no longer frightened or disturbed her.  Yet she was uneasily aware of the darker powers associated with such abilities.
           While Jean had been possessed by the alien Phoenix entity, she had savagely manipulated the minds of her helpless victims, willing them to see whatever she chose.  Even Xavier, who only rarely used his awesome powers, had been able to induce incredible hallucinations in his enemies.
           Was the Serpent dominating her mind?
           The sky began to flicker and darken around her. It is not real! she stubbornly thought.  That world belongs to another Storm and Logan!
           "My mind is my own to command!" she cried, defiantly shaking free of the star-studded desolation.   "You do not control me!"
           The Serpent laughed, a hollow sound that filled her with cold dread.  "You are weak, Goddess!" it sneered.  "Has your long stay in the other-world left you so feeble?  Have you forgotten the joy of battle, the thrill of the chase?"
           Storm's whitened eyes narrowed.  "The pleasure of death is yours alone, Huath!" she retorted.   "My way is to preserve life!"
           The Serpent laughed again.   "As it has always been.  At least your long absence has not impaired your memory along with your strength, my queen!"
           Huath!  How could she possibly have known the Serpent's true name?  Yet the word had come easily to her in the heat of fury.  Had Amaldio ever mentioned it, back when he was still teaching her of the old ways?  How else could she possibly know...
           "My strength is still equal to yours, old friend!" she angrily countered.  Bracing herself, she summoned a fierce burst of lightning.
           Huath effortlessly evaded the crackling forks of energy.  "Is that the limit of your imagination?" it mocked, fanning the hot air with its huge wings.  "Beware of my powers, Goddess!  Only I can grant your truest desires!  Will you slay that which holds the key to your greatest treasure?"
           Again the sky darkened around her.  A chaotic landscape stretched beneath her hovering feet.  Death, destruction...
           Yet she was suddenly, vibrantly aware of another presence in her mind, its savage furies barely contained.   Wolverine's fierce determination strengthened hers, just as it always had.
           Two souls, forever joined...
           "Had you forgotten?" Huath taunted.  "Your precious Storm God!  Will you forfeit your timeless love just to die, defeated, beneath my wings?  Or will you return now to his side?  You are powerless here without his aid!"
           She could just barely see the Serpent's long body coiling through the air.  "And if I do return?" she feinted, tensing her body for an attack.  "What then, Huath?"
           The Serpent's eyes seemed to glitter with malicious, triumphant glee.  "Leave now, and cede your rule to me!" it jeered.  "I will grant you life eternal with your puny God!"
           It was nearing now--she could see its outline strengthening through the thick gloom.  One chance...only one...
           Storm meekly bowed her head.   "You leave me with little choice."
           The Serpent's broad mouth widened in eager anticipation.  A little closer...
           "You are wise, Goddess!" Huath gleefully whispered.  "Join your soul-mate!  Leave this pitiful world and its miserable humans to me!  I will deal justly with them!"
           Now!
           "Your only justice is death, Huath!" she bitterly retorted.  Spreading her hands wide, she reached deep into her churning soul.  "Forces of nature, obey me!  Rid the land of this abomination!"
           The pervasive darkness cracked and splintered around her as the other-world vanished into dazzling fragments of brilliant light.  Huath reared back in surprise as she darted beneath it, her white winged cape billowing.  Then a fierce surge of air burst through the space she had just vacated, and caught the Serpent unprepared.  Screeching, it fell toward the nearest pyramid.
           The violent tornado whipped Huath in a tight circle.  For one brief moment, the huge Serpent struggled against Storm's titanic forces.  Then it folded its wings and neatly dropped out the center.
           Its gold-streaked feathers instantly flared out in outraged fury.  "Now you will die, Goddess!" it snarled, launching at her.
           Its speed was incredible!   Storm just barely managed to avoid its lethal jaws as it lunged for her, bloodlust in its glittering eyes.  No wonder Amaldio had spoken of its ferocity with such awe!   Dodging, she whipped around and aimed another vivid blast of lightning into its face.
           Huath staggered, dazzled by the pain.  Dark scorches marred the symmetry of its exquisitely-patterned skull.   Encouraged, Storm daringly launched another agonizing barrage.  The immense Serpent howled as it coiled into a tight knot, lashing its head to ease the pain.
           "Storm!"   Wolverine's urgent shout diverted her attention, and she rapidly glanced down.   He and Amaldio were behind the Sun Pyramid, half-hidden in the long grass.   Amaldio was pulling a thorny cactus briar from his trousers, a familiar gesture that she found obscurely comforting.  He never had been able to avoid those plaguey spines!
           Then Amaldio glanced up.   A jolt ran through her as their eyes briefly met and held.  Without thinking, she plunged toward the ground.
           "Storm, catch!"   Wolverine was holding something small and shiny in his hand.  Her amulet!  Galvanized, she swooped closer, both hands outstretched.
           "Look out!"   His eyes huge with alarm, Amaldio dove headlong into the dirt as Wolverine desperately hurled the amulet into the air.  It glittered as bright sunlight caught at the intricate etchings.
           Storm's long fingers closed over the whipping cord just as something struck her from behind.  Screaming with fury, Huath lashed out again, its long body extended as it fought to reach her.
           "Storm!"   From a tremendous distance she could hear Wolverine's anguished cry as she tumbled across the rough ground.  As if by instinct, she slipped the cord around her neck.
           The amulet banged against her chest and then seemed to glow as it drew power from her.  Or was it the other way around?  A flush of warmth spread through her as renewed energy flowed through her aching body.
           "Now you belong to me!" Huath grated.  Screaming in triumph, it charged at her, wings extended.    Dirt and grass flew as its sharp claws scoured the earth where she had just fallen.
           Storm was already airborne again.  Gasping for breath, she soared for the distant clouds.  She had to lead the vicious creature away from Logan and Amaldio!
           A furious howl shivered the air behind her.  Startled, she glanced back down.  Huath was violently lashing back and forth through the sky, bucking like a wild animal.
           "Logan!"   Without hesitation, she spun and dove again.  Lightning erupted from her widespread palms.  "Do not let go!"
           "I can't!"
           Wolverine's frantic voice reached her just as she saw his dilemma--his adamantium claws were tightly wedged beneath two of Huath's massive scales.  And the ground was receding further and further as Huath rose, determined to destroy this impudent creature who dared to interfere in its plans.
           She must distract the Serpent before it could harm Wolverine!  Time itself seemed to quiver and stop as she swooped perilously close to Huath's face.  "Release him, Huath!" she ordered, her voice ringing with power.  "Your battle is with me!"
           The huge Serpent derisively laughed.   "My battle is with any mortal foolish enough to support your cause, Goddess!  His blood shall warm my belly as I rend the flesh from his living bones!"
           "You're gonna have a tough time doin' that!" Wolverine retorted, scowling.  "I don't taste good!"
           For answer, Huath sinuously twined around, its jaws extended.  "Die, human!" it hissed.
           Wolverine defiantly grinned.   "Eat this, snake!" he yelled.
           Before Huath could dodge, he slashed at one huge gleaming eye with his razor-sharp claws.
           Huath bellowed in agony as blistering wildfire exploded through its triangular head.  It released its grip on Wolverine's other hand as it coiled in midair, protecting its vulnerable face from another attack.
           "Wolverine!"   Storm desperately lunged for him as he fell, his stocky body spinning toward the tallest pyramid.
           His long claws inadvertently shredded her long white sleeves as he gripped at her wrists with frenzied strength.   Then she looped an arm around his waist, securely drawing him up.  "Sorry 'bout that, darlin'!" he panted as they glided away from the huge, glowing temple.   "Guess I owe you one!"
           Storm faintly smiled.   "Since when have we ever counted such things, Wolverine?" she chided.   "You have saved my life often enough!"
           At that, he chuckled and hastily retracted his claws.  "Guess you're right."  Then he touched the billowing fragments around her wrists.  "Gonna have to get that fixed, if we ever get a break from this damned war!"
           Storm stared at him in wide-eyed shock.  "What did you say?"
           "Huath!"
           Amaldio's thin voice echoed through the air with surprising force, enveloping them with fleeting power.   Distracted, Storm hesitated.  Then her eyes widened in wondering awe.   Despite the vivid glow surrounding him, the aging archaeologist was standing atop the Feathered Serpent pyramid.  The heavy stone tablet was precariously lofted in the air above his head.
           "Huath!"
           At his second imperious command, the winged Serpent straightened and stared down at them in disbelief.  Its one good eye glittered in shocked dismay.  "You!" it bellowed.   "How dare you return to oppose me!"
           Amaldio coolly smiled.   "I will dare anything, to keep this world and its people safe!" he challenged.  "Even if it means destroying you!"
           Huath laughed.  The harsh, contemptuous sound echoed across the wide plain with chilling threat.   "Destroy the sacred tablet, fool, and you seal your own death!  Nothing will stop me from killing you and your precious charges!"
           Undaunted, Amaldio hurtled the stone down the side of the pyramid.  Small pebbles flew into the air as it bounced once, twice, then shattered into a million tiny fragments.
           "The chamber is forever sealed, Huath!" he cried, his voice oddly distorted as he drew himself up even taller.  "Your safe haven is lost!  Where will you flee now?"
           Again Huath's sharp laughter rang across the hills.  "Can your old mind be as weak as your eyesight?  I have no more need of havens!  This is my world now, and nothing you can do will change that!"
           "Don't count on it, bub!"
           Out of nowhere, Storm and Wolverine soared directly into Huath's path.  Before the startled Serpent could dodge, Wolverine lunged out of her grip, claws slashing.  Huath screamed and flung its head back.  Wolverine tenaciously dug in, leaving deep gouges in the creature's neck.
           "Storm!  Get clear!"  he yelled, an instant before he drove his claws deep into the soft flesh directly behind Huath's massive triangular head.  "Take this, you scaly nightmare!"
           Huath's long, powerful body convulsed, shuddering in nerve-rending agony.  Then it whipped around, howling with rage, fangs slicing through the air as it struggled to tear him off its back.
           Grinning, Wolverine aimed another blow at it...right across its other eye.
           Huath's piercing shriek made him clutch at his head, grimacing.  Then he lost his precarious balance, and he was falling...
           "Logan!"   Storm's anxious voice echoed in his ringing ears an instant before her slender arms closed around his waist.  "Are you all right?"
           "Yeah!"  He could barely hear his own hoarse voice as the Serpent screamed again, erratically beating the air with its brilliant diamond-hued wings.  "Watch out!"
           Huath was blinded, half-mad with searing agony...but it could still smell!  Jaws snapping, it launched itself at the nearest source of its misery.
           Storm barely dodged in time.   "Amaldio!  Run!" she yelled as the Serpent hesitated, craftily testing the air.  "Run!"
           The enraged serpent was alerted by her frantic cry.  Jaws agape, it dove at the pyramid.
           Storm barely beat him.   Huge chunks of volcanic rock exploded around them as she and Logan hauled the aging archaeologist into the air.   "Hang on!" Wolverine shouted.
           "Look out!"   Amaldio's thin voice rang out as the crazed Serpent lashed out with its long tail.   An instant later, the world suddenly spun on end as the scaly tip smashed into them, and hurtled them toward the ground.
           "Winds, support me!" Storm cried, her beautiful face contorted with the effort of protecting both men.
           Then they tumbled headlong across the grass, and darkness closed around them.

EPILOGUE

           "Storm!"
           Wolverine was the first to regain consciousness.  Groaning with the effort, he slowly dragged himself over to his teammate's limp, dirt-smeared body.
           "Storm!"
           Her face was alarmingly pale.   Hands trembling, he anxiously touched the side of her slender throat, searching for a pulse.
           "Storm!  Don't you leave me!"
           For several long moments, there was no response.  Then, as painful awareness returned, a faint shudder swept through Storm's body.
           "Logan?"
           He was clinging to her, cradling her in his strong arms.  "Storm?  You okay?" he hoarsely demanded, his voice husky with concern.
           A faint smile curved her lips as she weakly reached up and touched his dirty face.  "Do not worry, Logan.   You are stuck with me for a little while longer!" she reassured him.
           Logan stared down at her in blank confusion, startled by her instinctive choice of words.  For just an instant, as the sky seemed to darken above them, she thought that he might kiss her.
           Then the illusion was gone again.
           Storm shyly smiled up at him.   "You see, Logan," she murmured, "the other-world is not completely lost.  Not as long as we remember what it meant to us...to them."
           "Yeah."   Wolverine reluctantly nodded, his shoulders sagging.  "I guess you're right.  Hard to forget somethin' like that, anyway!"
           "Indeed!"   Storm pressed slender fingers against her aching temples, then staggered to her feet.  Wolverine steadied her as she worriedly glanced around.  "Where is Huath?"
           "There!"   Amaldio shakily rose from the deeper grass, his wire-rimmed glasses askew, and pointed across the Avenue.  "Look!"
           They spun around, instinctively tensing for an attack.  The clearing was silent except for the thin rush of blowing wind.
           Though the brilliant, eerie glow had faded from the two larger pyramids, their rich golden-brown stones still gleamed in the late afternoon sun.  The Feathered Serpent pyramid, however, lay in ruins.   Fully half of the immense structure had been demolished, and huge broken stones littered the plaza and long Avenue.
           Huath was gone.  Only a drifting pile of dusty ash remained where it had smashed into the ageless temple.
           Storm silently watched as the fitful wind scattered its ashes and carried them away.  Then she turned to Amaldio, her dark eyes narrowed with concern.  "Is Huath truly dead, Doctor?" she urged.
           Amaldio hesitated for a moment, then canted his head to one side, studying her.  "Who can say?" he finally shrugged, a regretful frown on his thin face.  "The body he maintained in this world is gone, and he was unable to return to the sacred chamber to heal.   Perhaps we have finally seen the last of him."
           Wolverine suspiciously glared around.  "For some reason, I ain't very reassured!" he grumbled.   "You okay, doc?"
           Amaldio nodded.  Then he wistfully glanced up at the shattered pyramid.  "Such a waste!" he sighed.   "Such a waste!  If only we had been able to reason with him!"
           Wolverine followed his gaze, and scowled.  "Some things you just can't reason with!" he bitterly muttered.  "Best you can do is kill it, before it hurts someone!"
           Amaldio reluctantly sighed again.  "I suppose you are right."
           Then he took a deep breath, and seemed to gather strength from somewhere deep inside his frail body.  "Now if you two will excuse me, I have much work to finish here," he apologized.
           Smiling, he offered his hand to Storm, and then to Wolverine.  "It has been a pleasure, my friends," he murmured.
           Suddenly he hesitated and glanced back at Storm.  The small, delicately-engraved amulet still hung around her neck.  He touched it with one long finger.  "Wear this in good health, my Goddess," he solemnly intoned.  "You have earned the right!"
           Before Storm could respond, he turned and briskly strode down the Avenue, headed toward the huge Sun pyramid.   Tears of gratitude stung her dark eyes as she silently watched him go.
           Of its own accord, Wolverine's rugged hand curled around hers in an affectionate grip.  "C'mon, Storm," he murmured.  "We'd better get back to the mansion.  Beast must be bitin' off all his nails by now, wonderin' what's been goin' on down here!"
           Storm blinked as his husky voice broke through her pensive reverie.  Then she fell into step beside him as they retraced their steps to the waiting minijet.  "And what will you tell him?" she urged.
           Wolverine glanced down at their clasped hands, and a fleeting smile curved his lips.  "Not a single thing, darlin'--not a single thing!  He'd never believe it, anyway!"

The End


Click here to read Episode III of "New Beginnings"
"Beastly Encounter"


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