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"Timeless Treasure"

Chapter 1

Giza Plateau, Egypt

           It was hot on the vast Giza plateau. It was always hot--except at night, of course, when the desert's staggering heat vanished like the wind. Egypt was a land of sharp contrasts, of harsh extremes. So very different from the rest of the world...
           ...yet as Henré D'Argent glanced around the dusty encampment before leaving the sweltering confines of his small tent, he could hardly remember living anywhere else. His father's lush vineyards in Southern France, where he had played as a young child, were only a faint dream now. Nothing else existed but the dry, dusty Egyptian plains...and the rare archaeological conventions where he shocked and scandalized his esteemed colleagues.
           He did so deliberately, he was honest enough to privately admit that. Most of them were sour, narrow-minded hypocrites. And as a mutant, a highly skilled telekinetic, he already had one strike against him. Why not make the most of it? His theories were well-presented and seductively intriguing...he never left any stone unturned in building a powerful case in his defense.
           And it showed. Despite being a mutant--despite leading the radical campaign against all "reasonable, right-thinking scientific discovery"--Henré D'Argent was nevertheless one of the most prestigious archaeologists in the world. The other scientists might deplore his unorthodox theories almost as much as they loathed his unique mutant powers--yet they still clamored and begged to work on his elite team. They clung to his every word...
           ...and he didn't care. He was a simple man who preferred the quiet friendship of his few true friends to the fawning devotion of his students, or the malicious backstabbing of his colleagues. He frequently yearned for his younger years, when he had simply been another undistinguished student surviving on a junior archaeologist's meager salary. No one had followed his every move then, or listened with bated breath to his every word.
           Well, those days were gone forever, and after today there could never be any turning back. Through a mixture of ingenious persuasion, subtle bribery, and--in one notable case--outright blackmail, he and his closest colleagues had achieved the impossible.
           Today, the eyes of the entire world would focus on him and his two partners.
           Today they were opening the fabled Sphinx's chamber.

• • • • •

           "Docteur D'Argent! Bonne chance!"
           His young student's eager, impetuous greeting brought a faint smile to Henré's lips as he made his way across the Sphinx compound. "Mercí, Aimee," he gently responded. "Êtes-vous prêt?"
           The girl's blue eyes glowed with anticipation. "Oui, m'sieur! Après vous!" And she politely gestured for him to precede her, a pretty flush of color staining her cheeks.
           Amused, Henré lightly patted her shoulder. "Mercí," he absently repeated. "C'est bonjour."
           It was, indeed, a good day, he thought as he speculatively eyed the Sphinx's impassive face for a moment. As always, he had to restrain the urge to bow or salute as the huge monument's mystical aura enveloped him.
           On all sides, he could hear his other students wishing him the best of luck in a variety of exotic languages. English and Egyptian were the most common dialects spoken at the excavation site, though some of the younger students meticulously struggled to master his native language. As if that would earn them bonus points, he sardonically mused. He spoke Arabic and Egyptian with the same fluency as English or his native French, and frequently intermixed them without realizing it.
           Then he shook off his dour mood, and confidently moved forward again. He was painfully aware of the many cameras following his every movement. Well, at least those annoying reporters weren't being given access to the pit itself! A large barbed-wire fence and several heavily-armed soldiers would keep them safely at bay, and protect whatever discoveries might be made down in the sacred chamber.
           The majestic Sphinx seemed to welcome him as he stepped through the narrow gate and casually saluted the guards on either side. Poor Sphinx, he mused as he glanced up at her massive, worn paws. Her face had been carved and re-carved so many times that no one could even guess at her original identity. Was that one of the things he would determine today? Or would that, like so many other things about her, remain an eternal mystery?
           Enough of this speculation, he sternly reminded himself. His esteemed colleagues were already down in the pit, impatiently waiting for him.
           It was time to go to work!
           The dark, rectangular opening in the sand seemed to beckon him. Henré took a deep breath, then politely accepted a sturdy headlamp from one of the guards and settled it on his head. Its familiar weight felt comforting, somehow reassuring. Without further hesitation, he headed down into the long, sloping tunnel.
           Behind him, two dozen eager reporters chattered into their microphones, then fell silent again. He really didn't know what they expected from him...even if he and his partners found anything noteworthy down in the sacred chamber, he could hardly shout it to the world the moment he emerged! The ancient artifacts would have to be deciphered, studied, and thoroughly analyzed before a full report could be made to the Association for the Advancement of Science. And only then, after months or perhaps even years, could a full disclosure be made to the public.
           Still, he reluctantly conceded, they must feel an unquenchable urge to share in the first magical moments of discovery...the same urge which had prompted him to sign up for his first archaeological expedition nearly forty years ago. He could hardly fault their eager enthusiasm.
           The shimmering yellowish beam of light from his headlamp cut through the growing darkness like a sharp knife. Deeper, deeper, and around the corner that he had insisted on, to keep sunlight and wind from damaging the fragile artifacts which might be awaiting them inside the sacred chamber.
           The light brightened as he rounded the corner. Ah, yes, Mariah and Yasuf were already in place, carefully examining the thick stone wall at the end of the tunnel. His loyal friends, without whose help he could never have persuaded the reluctant Egyptian government to cooperate.
           Mariah turned around as he approached, a welcoming smile on her angular, earnest face. For the last two decades, they had explored the ancient mysteries together, united by their common fascination for pre-Egyptian cultures. They were an unbeatable team, however revolutionary their conclusions might seem to the more traditional scientists.
           Yasuf had joined them nearly ten years ago when the Egyptian government had insisted on tighter surveillance of Henré's excavations. He freely admitted that he had originally been sent as a spy. To the government's dismay, however, he had found D'Argent's theories so compelling that he had thrown their commission back in their collective faces and permanently joined D'Argent's elite team. He was wholly committed, body and soul, to Henré's search for the truth about mankind's origins.
           Now he straightened, cradling a large, sturdy laser in one arm, as he soberly clasped hands with his two friends.
           It was a solemn moment. Beyond that thick stone wall might lie unimaginable treasures...or nothing at all. The history of the entire world might literally be at their fingertips.
           Mariah's short, silver-tipped hair glittered in the harsh torchlight as she abruptly nodded. "Well, gentlemen, this is it," she exclaimed. "Shall we get started?"
           Henré and Yasuf hesitated a moment longer, then resolutely nodded. She was right, as always...the moment was truly upon them. Yasuf braced himself, then took a deep breath and activated the laser. Henré and Mariah instinctively backed up several paces, their eyes averted from the glowing red beam of light.
           Tiny sparks flew as the wiry little Egyptian made first contact with the ancient stone slab. Despite himself, Henré anxiously bit his lower lip as he half-watched the laser effortlessly slice through the thick wall.
           "Remember, Yasuf, according to the seismographic readings, the wall is less than two meters thick," he cautioned. His long fingers nervously twitched as the laser's high-pitched whine rose. Beside him, Mariah flinched in mute protest. "Be careful not to cut through anything that might be on the other side!"
           Yasuf patiently rolled his eyes. Every time he used the laser, it was always the same...as if he had ever damaged a single tiny artifact! He had an innate feel for the stone, an instinctive awareness of how deep to cut and exactly when to pull the deadly beam away. He could practically feel the granite's resistance as he started a new incision along the bottom, forming a man-sized doorway.
           "Do not worry, Henré," he calmly assured the anxious Frenchman. "I have not forgotten. Be ready to move the block aside as soon as I have finished."
           Mariah couldn't quite hide a smile as Henré comically rolled his own eyes. As if, after all their hard work, he would leave it in place one second longer than necessary! She reassuringly patted his arm, then hurried back up the slanting tunnel.
           An eager crowd of scientists and students instantly clustered around her. "Have you broken through yet, Doktôra Rogers?" one of them asked in heavily-accented English. Beyond them, the cameras whirred as the reporters pushed against the fence, angling for a closer view.
           Mariah held her hands up for silence, and was instantly obeyed. "You know the procedure," she instructed, pitching her voice so that the news crews could also hear her. "As soon as Yasuf finishes cutting the block, Dr. D'Argent will bring it to the surface. All of you, move away from the entrance until the slab is firmly settled about...there." And she pointed toward an empty spot halfway between the opening and the heavily-guarded gate. "You can examine it to your heart's content after it's been moved."
           "Then you haven't found anything yet, Dr. Rogers?" one of the reporters eagerly called, pressing her face against the thick wire.
          Mariah favored the younger woman with a thin, cold smile. "That depends what you expected to find in a dirty, dark tunnel!" she retorted. "If anything still exists, it will be behind that stone wall...not moldering in the sand!"
           Shaking her head at such idiocy, she turned and stalked back down into the slanting shaft. The laser's piercing whine made her grit her teeth again, but she struggled to ignore it. Another few minutes and that part of the excavation would be over.
           Henré was still where she had left him, anxiously tugging at his greying beard. How well she knew the tension he must be feeling right now! But she also knew just how to relax him, and make him smile again.
           "I still can hardly believe that we're finally being allowed into the sacred chamber!" she exclaimed, warmly smiling up at him. "Archaeologists have been trying to gain access to it for decades! If the legends are true..."
           As always, her bubbling enthusiasm roused Henré from his somber thoughts. This was a side of her personality that she rarely showed, and that never failed to amuse him.
           "Which ones, cherie?" he tolerantly countered. "There are so many to choose from! Atlantis, Eden, Pelucidar, Valhalla..."
           Mariah hid her pleasure at having diverted him behind an embarrassed shrug. "Oh, you know what I mean, Henré!" she protested. "The Sphinx has always been considered the guardian of knowledge! Prophets predicted the existence of this chamber fifty years before it was actually found, and they claimed that it held the knowledge of mankind's true beginnings." Her dark eyes seemed to glow with excitement. "What if they're right? This could be the discovery of the century!"
           The discovery of the century...
           Though he valiantly tried to ignore it, Henré's heart began thumping a little faster. He cared little about the fame which would accompany a lucrative find. But the immeasurable knowledge to be gained...ah, now that was a fine prize, indeed!
           Without warning, the high-pitched whine faded away. Yasuf brushed a heavy coating of dust from his clothes as he straightened. "It is all yours, Henré," he smugly offered, stepping back out of harm's way. "Think you can lift it out of here without crushing us in the process?"
           Henré indignantly stiffened at Yasuf's mocking tone...yet this, too, was part of their long-standing camaraderie. His dark eyes sparkling with suppressed laughter, he haughtily slapped his hands together and stepped up to the massive wall. "I can lift anything!" he retorted. "Just make sure you stay out of my way, you scruffy sand dog!"
           Grinning, Yasuf and Mariah quickly obeyed him. Tiny bits of sand rustled and fell to the floor as they pressed against the wall, giving the telekinetic plenty of room.
           Yasuf's black eyes gleamed with unspoken challenge as Henré hesitated, gathering his strength. Then the French archaeologist resolutely summoned his awesome mutant powers, and the huge stone block quivered.
           A raspy, scraping sound echoed through the long tunnel. Mariah instinctively pressed tighter against the tunnel as the massive slab floated away from the surrounding wall, rotated until it was laying flat, and slowly moved up the narrow passageway.
           Beads of sweat glistened on Henré's tanned forehead as he telekinetically maneuvered the stone around the sharp corner. Sand and dirt sprinkled onto the rough granite surface as it bumped against the low ceiling a few times. Then it was free, and smoothly moving up the last stretch to the surface.
           A flurry of excited applause swelled to wholehearted cheering as Henré gently settled the heavy slab to the ground in the middle of the clearing...almost exactly where Mariah had predicted. "Kwayyis, Doktôr D'Argent! You have done it again!" a young, enthusiastic voice echoed down the dark shaft.
           Henré sagged against the nearest wall, struggling to catch his breath. Mariah and Yasuf anxiously glanced at each other, but neither of them moved to help him...they understood his need for dignity and self-reliance. Finally he straightened, releasing a heavy sigh of relief. "I am getting to old for this!" he confessed, wiping his forehead with one sleeve. "Well, don't just stand there--let us see what we have uncovered this time!"
           As if by unspoken agreement, Yasuf and Mariah stepped back, allowing him to enter the chamber first. As their team leader, it was his right and privilege...yet their generosity was prompted more by deep friendship than by duty. Smiling, Henré climbed through the opening, then quickly turned around and gestured for them to follow him...
           ...so that he wouldn't see anything before they also had a chance to share in the wondrous moment of discovery, Mariah realized as she accepted his helping hand. She, too, kept her headlamp focused on the gritty stone floor until Yasuf scrambled through the doorway. Then, in unison, they eagerly stared around the sacred chamber.
           Always the pragmatist, Yasuf curiously sniffed at the air as he focused his light on a nearby table. Gold and multi-faceted gems winked back at him as he delicately brushed the dust of many centuries away from a small, intricately-carved figurine. "The air does not smell as bad as I had expected," he murmured, a thoughtful expression on his weathered face. "Surely fresh air cannot still be venting in from the surface!"
           Neither of the other archaeologists seemed to hear him. Their attention was riveted on the huge artifact standing against the far wall. It was about ten feet tall, and appeared to be made of some strange, translucent metal...yet it was glowing, as if with some unearthly light! Strange, milky patterns slowly moved over its six uniform sides, highlighting a series of sharp carvings which vaguely resembled ancient pre-Egyptian hieroglyphs.
           The center seemed empty...and yet, as he looked more closely, Henré thought he could almost see a faint, shimmering glow forming from somewhere deep inside!
           His eyes huge, Yasuf jumped and took a hasty step back. Mariah convulsively swallowed and crossed herself.
           "Mon dieu!" Henré gasped, his hoarse voice loud in the sudden silence. "What in the world is it?"
           Mariah slowly met his wondering gaze, her face pale, and shook her head. "I have no idea!" she whispered.

Chapter 2

           "Have you found anything else, Jean?"
           Professor Xavier's angular face was alight with a mixture of curiosity and concern as he silently guided his hoverchair into the large War Room. Storm glanced up and nodded a sober greeting, then turned back to monitor the dozen-odd television screens lining one wall.
           Xavier's familiar, crisp voice roused Jean from her deep telepathic rapport. Slowly opening her eyes, she pulled Cerebro's interface headset off and set it on the nearest console. "I'm sorry, Professor," she apologized, raking slender fingers through her long auburn hair. "There was only that one brief surge, and now it's gone!
           "Cerebro thinks that it originated from somewhere in lower Egypt," she added, trying to bolster her own spirits, "but it was gone before I could get a lock on it!"
           How well Xavier could understand her helpless frustration! Nodding, he reassuringly patted her shoulder. "Rest a while, Jean," he advised. "Perhaps I will have better luck."
           Jean nodded, grateful for the reprieve, and politely offered him the metallic headset.
           Behind them, Storm abruptly straightened. "Professor, look!" she cried, pointing at one of the large monitors. Alarmed by her vehement tone, Xavier instantly spun his chair around and hurried across the room.
           The Sphinx and two of the great pyramids were clearly visible for a moment on the central screen. Then the camera's view changed, focusing on Henré D'Argent's exhausted, dusty face. He seemed to be climbing out of a large, rectangular hole in the ground between the Sphinx's massive front paws.
           "Dr. D'Argent!" A woman's persistent voice made the weary scientist cringe as he tried to follow his companions through the narrow opening in a large barbed-wire fence. "Dr. D'Argent! Isn't it true that you and your colleagues discovered a treasure trove of alien artifacts beneath the Sphinx today? Can you tell us exactly what's down there?"
           Henré looked distinctly annoyed, but his efforts to slide past the cameramen were futile. Despite his attempts to wave them away, they continued pursuing him. The reporter's shoulder-length dark hair was partially visible as she stubbornly jogged along after him.
           "Dr. D'Argent, please!" she insisted. "The whole world has been waiting for thousands of years to uncover the mysteries of the legendary Sphinx!"
           Without warning, Henré spun back around and glared down at her. She boldly held her position, a microphone thrust in his face. He seemed to grit his teeth in frustration. Then he angrily confronted the camera crews.
           "Then the whole world will have to wait a little longer!" he retorted. "Even if we had found anything, I would not be at liberty to discuss it at this time!
           "Now if you please," he added in a gentler, coaxing voice, "I am hot and dirty and very tired, and I would very much appreciate the chance to refresh and clean myself. With your permission, mademoiselle..."
           He signaled one of the security guards, then stalked off toward his small tent. The camera wobbled slightly as the disgruntled reporters were herded away from the sprawling encampment. A smiling anchorman abruptly replaced that provocative glimpse of the bustling archaeological site.
           "Well, that's all we have for you at this point," he cheerfully informed them, "although rumors are flying thick and fast that something was discovered in that sacred chamber, something big! As you're no doubt aware..."
           Disgusted, Storm impatiently flipped a switch, and the man's effervescent voice faded into the background. "Professor Xavier, I must go to the plateau and see this for myself!" she exclaimed, spinning around to face Xavier. "Henré D'Argent is a close friend of mine--he will tell me the truth about whatever he and his colleagues have found!"
           Storm's urgent request was not entirely unexpected...Xavier was keenly aware of her deep ties to her mother's homeland. He thoughtfully stroked his chin, then glanced up at Jean, a thin smile curving his lips. "That telepathic burst must have originated at about the same time Dr. D'Argent made his discovery! Quite a coincidence!" he murmured. "Do you think he was telling the truth, Jean?"
           The red-haired telepath firmly shook her head. "I think he was hiding something," she contended, "something that scared him a lot! I'd like to go there with Storm, Professor, if it's all right with you!"
           Storm anxiously frowned as she rose to pace the length of the room. "I know that he was lying, Professor! I have never seen Henré so shaken before!" she insisted.
           Xavier thoughtfully stared at the large monitor again, his lips pursed in concentration. "Henré D'Argent is the leader of the French archaeology team, isn't he, Storm?" he finally asked.
           The elegant Egyptian princess stopped her restless pacing as a reminiscent smile curved her lips. "He is also a skilled telekinetic, Professor," she slyly elaborated. "I have been hoping for a chance to introduce you to him."
           Her guileless maneuvering brought a faint, appreciative smile to Xavier's austere features. "Very well, Storm," he decided. "I will accompany you to Egypt.
           "Jean, I would like you to remain here, and continue your rapport with Cerebro," he added, briskly gesturing back at the abandoned headset. "If the discovery at Giza is the source of our earlier readings, you will be able to monitor them from a safe distance."
           Jean's slender shoulders sagged with disappointment, but she knew from long experience that arguing with him was useless. "Of course, Professor," she murmured. "I'll send you the coordinates as soon as I have something definite to report."
           It was also useless trying to hide her feelings from him. "As soon as we reach the plateau, I will re-initiate telepathic contact," he promised, smiling. "You will not miss anything, Jean, I assure you."
           A soft rustling suddenly drew their attention. His long legs crossed, Gambit was curiously leaning against the sturdy doorframe, a deck of cards flowing between his fingers. "What plateau, P'fessor?" he demanded, straightening to his full height. "Somethin' goin' on dat Gambit oughta know 'bout?"
           Storm gestured at the glowing monitors. Several more of them were broadcasting various Egyptian panoramas. Henré D'Argent's weary face was visible again on the large central screen. "The Sphinx's sacred chamber has finally been opened, Gambit!" she exclaimed. "I believe Dr. D'Argent's discovery may be linked to the unusual psychic energy pulse that Jean detected half an hour ago!"
           Suddenly intent, the tall Cajun stared at her in thoughtful surprise. "So dey finally open it, eh? Dey take dere time, nón?" Then an enthusiastic gleam lit his own eyes. "You want some company, mes ami's?  Been too long since Gambit been to Cairo!"
           Storm glanced over at Professor Xavier for permission. To her relief, he noncommittally shrugged, leaving the decision to her. "I would welcome your presence, Gambit," she nodded, her beautiful face grim with anxiety. "Henré was clearly frightened by whatever his team unearthed."
           She briefly resumed her restless pacing, then spun back around to face her teammates. "If it is tied to some kind of mutant activity, we would do well to go fully prepared...just in case."
           Her ominous conclusion made Gambit scowl. "Ain't much can scare dat man!" he reluctantly agreed. "Mebbe I talk to Rogue an' Wolverine, too, nón? Could be we need all da help we can git!"
           Xavier frowned as he considered Gambit's suggestion. "I would also like Beast to accompany us--his scientific background may be of considerable assistance," he finally murmured. "However, despite their attachment, I do not feel that Carly is mature enough yet to join the team on a possible mission. She needs to learn more control over her talents first. I would prefer her to remain here with you and Scott, Jean."
           As if it wasn't bad enough that she had to babysit a computer...now she had to nursemaid their rebellious new student! Jean hid her grimace of disgust with difficulty.
           Oh, it wasn't Carly herself who posed the problem, she quickly amended as her conscience twinged. She was a nice young girl, and everyone liked her well enough. And Beast had never seemed happier--there was no doubting that they shared a deep emotional bonding.
           If she'd only learn to control herself...
           Her empathic talent had been greatly strengthened in their recent encounter with Mystique, but she still lacked the discipline to properly utilize her growing abilities! She was like a child, testing her limits along with everyone's patience, totally heedless of the consequences.
           There was no malice in her actions...but her battle with the Sultan had given her a greater taste of power than she'd ever imagined. And like a child, she acted on impulse, invading her teammates' minds and emotions without regard for their privacy or feelings.
           Still, Jean hadn't forgotten how difficult it had been to master her own talents. How often had she overstepped her limits, played telekinetic pranks, hurt people's feelings by delving into their minds and 'reading' their innermost thoughts without permission?
           In time, Carly would also learn to control her playful impulses, and gain the discipline so necessary to work with her new teammates. Perhaps Jean could even help her, while other more distracting influences were away.
           "As you wish, Professor," she sighed, forcing an obedient nod. "What about Jubilee? She won't like being left behind, now that she's no longer 'the rookie'."
           Xavier coolly smiled. "By the time she returns from shopping at the mall, we will be halfway to Egypt. Tell her...tell her that you need her assistance in keeping Carly out of trouble," he suggested. "That should make her feel better.
           "And perhaps it will also teach her not to leave the school grounds without notifying someone first!" he added, a shrewd, enigmatic gleam in his clear blue eyes.
           Jean and Gambit both grinned at his ingenious solution, but Storm was still too disturbed by the continued broadcasts to respond to his subtle humor. Frowning, she turned and left the room.
           "I reckon we'd best git goin'," Gambit agreed, shrugging as he politely gestured for Xavier to follow her. "Don' feel bad 'bout stayin' behind, cherie," he cheerfully added, winking at Jean. "We be back 'fore ya know it! Dere be plenty o' chances to see Henré's site!  Hey, I take you dere myself, once all dis calms down!"
           Jean forced a half-hearted smile as he tucked his cards back into an inner pocket of his long coat, and hurried after his teammates. Then, sighing, she sat back down at the long console and reluctantly picked up the interface headset again.

• • • • •

           The desert was just as she had last seen it. Not that she had truly expected it to change--the great Egyptian sands were as timeless as the priceless treasures they contained.
           SaHrá...the very word meant 'vast desert' in Egyptian. SaHrá...timeless, changeless...
           Comforted, Storm relaxed in her chair and complacently watched the endless Sahara desert gliding by under the Blackbird's dark wings.
           Somewhere ahead, money and goods would be changing hands amid spirited, good-natured bargaining in the sûq, Cairo's bustling marketplace. The busy streets would be filled to overflowing with eager tourists and weather-worn natives, camels and tour buses, big hotels and scraggly little tents.
           A land of contrasts, just as it had always been.
           Her entire life was a series of contrasts, she suddenly realized, feeling the warmth of Wolverine's hand on her shoulder. From ragged pickpocket to leader of Professor Xavier's Blue Strike Team...orphan to teammate...Henré to Logan...
           Of course, she quickly reminded herself, she and Henré had never shared any kind of romantic love for each other. Nor, despite their awesome experiences down in Mexico a few months ago, was she completely soul-bonded to Logan. Still, for many years, Henré had been the most important person in her life. She could not help wondering how he and Logan would take to each other.
           As if he could somehow sense her feelings--and it was entirely possible that he could, she privately conceded--Wolverine glanced down at her and forced an uneasy smile. The vast, flowing Sahara desert did not give him the same sense of inner peace that she always experienced. To him, the endless sands were a threat, an obstacle to be overcome before he lost himself amid the rolling dunes.
           Smiling, she laid a reassuring hand over his. Soon they would be landing. And as Gambit had so aptly commented, there were few things which could frighten Henré D'Argent. She had a strong, uneasy feeling that she might need Wolverine's strength by her side, if she was to face whatever Henré had uncovered beneath the mystical Sphinx.
           At least the rest of the team did not seem disturbed by their current mission. Professor Xavier was avidly scanning a recent archaeological holozine, reading about Henré's last excavation. And toward the back of the plane, Gambit was amusing Rogue with a series of intricate card tricks. To the rest of her teammates, this was little more than a routine flight.
           Why should she remain so uneasy about the prospect of entering the sacred chamber?
           Because, she ruefully conceded, she had been brought up on the lore and myths surrounding the majestic Sphinx.   Henré himself had done much to foster her love for the ancient monument.
           Gateway to eternity, repository of sacred knowledge, a mystical force to those few who understood its powers...the Sphinx was of all of those things, and many more.
           What unexpected discovery could have so disturbed her dear friend?
           They were nearing the archaeological site, and dusk was falling around them. Now, when the day's labors were finished, would be the best time to reach him. Nodding, she stood up and headed for the front of the plane.
           Beast glanced up from his controls as she settled into the chair across from him. "We should be landing within the half hour," he quietly assured her. Bracing herself, Storm took a deep breath and reached for the small communications screen.
           The man who answered was unfamiliar to her. Overworked and underpaid, she concluded, sizing up his weary face and ragged tunic. A typical dig-site laborer. Surly, too, she realized as a distrustful frown darkened his face.
           "Ana badawwer "ala Doktôr Henré D'Argent," she briskly requested in fluent Egyptian.
           The man's frown deepened. "La'!" he snapped, vehemently shaking his head. "Bukra!"
           Piqued, Storm irritably leaned forward. "La', innaharda! Ana badawwer "ala Doktôr Henré D'Argent," she firmly repeated. "Ismï Ororo Monroe."
           The man's black eyes narrowed, and for a moment she thought he might refuse her again. Then he sighed. "Istanna," he sourly muttered.
           "Shukran," she retorted, impatiently shaking her head. As if the imbecile deserved her thanks, with his hostile attitude!
           "Problems, darlin'?" Wolverine suspiciously rasped from behind her. Again, she found that the warmth of his hand on her shoulder had a calming effect on her nerves. Mustering a smile, she reassuringly shook her head.
           "He was insisting that we wait until tomorrow...he has undoubtedly been instructed to turn away all callers," she explained. "I am certain that Henré will speak to me, though, for just a few moments."
           "Yeah? You two go way back, don'tcha?" Wolverine's eyes narrowed for a moment, and Storm wondered if he might possibly be jealous.
           Then he briskly nodded his shaggy head. "Good! That'll make it easier to get in an' see this thing...whatever it is!" he exclaimed, satisfied.
           Unaccountably relieved, Storm smiled again. Then the commscreen lit up again, and Henré D'Argent wearily smiled up at her. Though he had obviously eluded the numerous reporters long enough to clean up and rest a bit, he still looked exhausted. And frightened, Storm thought as he warily glanced around, making certain that no one could overhear him.
           "Ororo!" he exclaimed when he finally met her eyes again. "I could hardly believe my ears when Hassan told me you were calling!"
           He was in a small half-open tent, she realized as the strong wind rustled a heavy flap behind him. That, too, had not changed since the days when she had accompanied him from site to site. Exquisite care was given to the artifacts that they might uncover, but the archaeologists' living conditions were inevitably a slice of hell.
           "I assume you saw that ridiculous newscast earlier?" he was rapidly continuing, his voice low. "It was nonsense, of course. I should have expected that you would come to see our site--I should have called to tell you not to bother. But..."
           She had never seen him ramble on so! Whatever he had found must have been even worse than she had anticipated! Maintaining her serene smile with an effort, Storm raised her hand to halt his stumbling explanation.
           "Henré, I must see you right away," she urged, her dark eyes filled with pleading. "It is very important."
           For a moment, she thought that he might protest again. Then he sighed and glanced away, his shoulders sagging. "I know how important it is to you, Ororo, but I cannot sneak you in! You must understand that!"
           Storm soothingly shook her head. "I do understand, Henré," she assured him. "I did not come to peek at your latest find...I was hoping to introduce you to a very close friend of mine."
           On cue, Xavier glided closer to the commscreen.  Henré's eyes instantly widened. There was no question that he recognized the world-renowned telepath. He warily straightened, his mind racing in a dozen different directions...then slowly nodded.
           "However, it would be a great pleasure to see you again, ma cherie," he continued without a pause. "Can you meet me at the tourist center when you arrive? I believe I owe you a drink from...ah, it must be years ago now! How the time has flown!"
           Behind her, Wolverine stiffened at Henré's mild endearment, but wisely kept his silence. Storm ignored him. She knew how difficult it was for the shaken archaeologist to maintain his poise, and the warmth of her smile showed her appreciation.
           "I believe it was Cairo," she calmly responded, "after we put an end to that band of petty thieves who were raiding your dig site and selling the artifacts in the sûq iswid!"   A mischievous gleam seemed to light her eyes at the memory.
           "We should arrive within the half-hour, Henré," she smoothly continued. "I look forward to seeing you again, too."
           Wolverine frowned as she leaned forward to switch off the commscreen. "Black market thieves, huh?" he sourly muttered. "You never told me 'bout that one!"
           Somehow she was not surprised to find that he understood colloquial Egyptian.  Storm swiveled around in her chair, and met his frustrated glare with an amused smile.  "That is because I was one of the thieves, Logan!" she drily confessed, folding her hands together.   "Henré caught me creeping out of his camp one night, a priceless Egyptian statue tucked in my cloak.  He telekinetically retrieved the piece without my realizing it, and then followed me to the kheyma sûq."
           A faint, reminiscent smile curved her lips as she recalled the poignant memories. "I was so frightened when I found that I had lost the statue!" she ruefully continued. "I thought that Achmar would surely beat me! Then Henré appeared and told me that I had dropped the statue down the street. He gave it to me and went on his way."
           A secretive gleam brightened Gambit's reddish-brown eyes as he tucked his cards away and leaned forward to listen. Beside him, Rogue tilted her head, fascinated by this rare tidbit of information about her best friend's murky past.
           Even Beast appeared enthralled as he took the plane off autopilot and began the landing sequence. "So what happened then?" he urged.
           Storm smiled again as she met Gambit's knowing gaze. "I did not think I would see him again," she confessed, "so I was surprised to find him waiting for me in the alley. As before, he had retrieved the statue from danger. It was the first time I had ever seen genuine telekinesis, and I was fascinated by his abilities!"
           Now she turned her grateful smile on Xavier. "He helped me in much the same way that you did, Professor," she explained. "When I told him the names of my companions, he had them arrested and put in jail...but he conveniently forgot to name me among their members.
           "And after you banished the Shadow King to the astral plain, he offered me sanctuary," she softly concluded. "I stayed with him many times over the years while he worked on different archaeological sites."
           Rogue glanced up at Gambit. "You knew all 'bout this, didn't ya?" she curiously demanded.
           Gambit merely shrugged.   "Henré D'Argent an' me, we go 'way back, chér," he conceded.   "Kissin' cousins, you'd call it.  One o' his kin married one o' mine."  A sly grin curved his lips as he spread his hands wide.  "He spent some time in N'Orleans back 'fore I joined up wit' da Guild.  We stay in touch over da years, 'specially after Storm pointed me toward Xavier...an' you."
           There was no mistaking the warmth in his tone as he stroked her hand. Rogue glanced away to hide the sudden flush of color that stained her cheeks, but not before he caught a glimpse of her shy, pleased smile. Delighted by her reaction, he softly chuckled.
           Wolverine sourly grunted, exasperated by their momentary preoccupation. "Sappy!" he muttered under his breath as he turned to glare out the cockpit window at the approaching desert floor.
           Storm lightly touched his hand. "Perhaps it seems so to you," she conceded in a soft voice, "but they are very happy, Logan. Would you deny them that, after they have waited so long?"
           Wolverine simply scowled, and fell silent.

Chapter 3

           The tourist center consisted of several faded tents where, during the day, the colorful, sunburned vendors hawked their wares to a multitude of gullible tourists. Off to one side, a large camel lot offered exotic rides for the more adventurous to the nearby huge pyramids.
           In the distance, the Sphinx's enigmatic face glowed in the light from a dozen large spotlamps. Normally, even at night, the site was overflowing with eager tourists. Tonight, however, an unusual silence filled the air. Only the thin rush of wind could be heard as it idly flapped through the deserted tents.
           Beast expertly landed the huge Blackbird off on the far side of the little tents, as far from the brilliant spotlights as possible. Dust swirled around them for several moments as the retros shut down. Then the bottom hatch glided open, and a long ramp slowly descended.
           Storm was the first to appear, closely followed by Wolverine and Professor Xavier. Her long white hair and elegant flightsuit seemed to glow in a stray beam of light from the distant monument when she eagerly hurried down into the small bazaar. A long coat and wide-brimmed hat concealed Beast's thick blue fur as he followed Rogue and Gambit, tactfully lingering several paces behind them.
           The cool breeze made Rogue shiver and clasp her arms together in mute protest. "Jeez, an' I always thought it was hot in the desert!" she grumbled.
           Storm smiled at her friend, and pointed to the shifting sand beneath their feet. "Only during the day," she explained, "when the sun's heat reflects off the sand. At night it can be quite chilly on the open dunes."
           Wolverine sniffed at the changing wind, and a grimace of disgust darkened his rugged features. "Ugghhh...camel dung!" he protested. "Why don't they ever clean out those stinkin' pens?"
           "Because the tourists expect it, I suppose." Henré D'Argent glanced around as if he had expected to be followed, then cautiously moved out of the deep shadows cast by a pair of ragged tents. "The pungent aroma of Egypt's deserts are as much a part of its legend as are the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids!"
           A welcoming smile suddenly lit his darkly-tanned face as he moved forward to embrace Storm. "Ororo, ma cherie!  And Remy!" He energetically clasped the tall Cajun's hands. "You both look wonderful, as always!  Ahlan wa sahlan!  Welcome back to Egypt, my friends!"
           Then he turned and formally bowed to Xavier, his eyes filled with respect. "And you, of course, are Professor Charles Xavier. Tasharrafna!  It is an honor, sir, to finally meet you!"
           Xavier soberly shook his proffered hand. "Wa "alêkum es salæm, Dr. D'Argent.  And you, as well," he responded with an earnest nod. "I have heard much about you from Gambit and Storm. May I introduce you to my other associates, Rogue and Dr. Henry McCoy?"
           "Forsa sa"ída!   It is my pleasure," Henré gallantly murmured, smiling with genuine warmth as he turned to greet Rogue.  His dark eyes glowing, he lightly kissed the back of her gloved hand. A delighted smile instantly lit her startled face.  Beside her, Gambit chuckled in amusement.
           "And you must be Dr. McCoy," he finally added, clasping Beast's hand and vigorously shaking it.   "Es salæm "alêkum!  I have read several of your recent papers on ancient civilizations.  Your theories are most provocative, sir!   Perhaps we will have time to discuss them at some future time?"
           Beast solemnly nodded. "I will look forward to it," he assured the archaeologist.
           "As will I," Henré agreed. Then he glanced around again, and uneasily dropped his voice. "May I assume that you have a specific reason for visiting me at this particular time, my friends?" he added, his dark eyes narrowed with concern.
           Xavier gestured back toward the large jet's dark bulk. "We can be assured of total privacy inside the Blackbird," he offered. "If you would care to join us..."
           Without further comment, he turned and glided up the ramp again. Henré uncertainly stared after him until Gambit clasped his arm, then followed Rogue and Beast up into the dimly-lit hold. Resigned, Henré fell into step beside Storm and reluctantly accompanied them.
           The huge plane's interior was considerably different than he had expected. Rather than endless rows of small, sterile seats, the compartment seemed practically empty...only a few comfortable couches and tables lined the sturdy walls. So the Professor could move around more easily in his strange floating chair?
           No one else seemed surprised by the large conference table materializing from the thickly-carpeted floor, so Henré tried to control his own startled reaction. Remy slyly winked at him, then deliberately settled into one of the chairs, as if proving that they weren't illusions.
           Rogue cheerfully dropped down beside Gambit, her fingers resting on his long arm. Despite himself, Henré couldn't help wondering if something serious might be developing between the pair. His wild-tempered, headstrong cousin had never settled on any one woman for long, yet he seemed curiously content to have Rogue at his side.
           Could Remy LeBeau finally have fallen in love?
           Then he abandoned his idle speculation as Storm and the others seated themselves, and waited for him to join them. They obviously wished to speak with him, and he could not quite deny his own curiosity. What could possibly have brought two of the world's most highly-renowned mutant scientists to his doorstep at this critical moment?
           Xavier did not leave him in suspense for long. A metallic headset suddenly descended from the high ceiling and settled on the telepath's head. A moment later, Cerebro projected a glowing holographic image of the Egyptian plains in the center of the table. Fascinated, Henré stared in rapt awe as a series of red lines crisscrossed the map and narrowed on the large Giza plateau.
           Xavier half-closed his eyes in concentration, and the map brightened. "At approximately nine o'clock this morning, Cairo time," he elaborated, "one of my colleagues detected a very brief psychic pulse emanating from this region. It was of an unknown origin, and extremely powerful. If I am not mistaken, that was the exact time when you and your colleagues opened the Sphinx's sacred chamber, was it not?"
           Henré slowly nodded, startled by Xavier's shrewd conclusion. A psychic pulse?  Could it have come from the huge, alien artifact that they had uncovered? It had been glowing with that eerie, opalescent light...
           Xavier's thin smile radiated satisfaction. "I have been in constant communication with Cerebro since then," he continued, nodding. The holographic image faded slightly as he met Henré's bemused gaze. "Yet no additional surges have been registered. Am I also safe in assuming that you have not allowed anyone into the chamber since you left it several hours ago?"
           Henré raked one hand through his graying hair as he ruefully shrugged. "Regrettably, this is true. We cannot allow anyone in until we are certain of what we have found," he conceded.
           "It is most confusing," he added with a weary sigh. "The chamber is filled with two sets of artifacts, each apparently dating from a different period of time. The small statues and figurines were clearly added several centuries after the other artifact, almost as if the chamber briefly became a place of worship. They are beautiful and intricate, though unlike anything we have ever seen before. I believe that they may constitute proof of an earlier civilization, one which pre-dates the commonly accepted Egyptian dynasties.
           "Yet it is the other artifact which bothers me," he confessed. "We have found something...but I do not know what it is! I cannot believe, however, that it was created here on our world. It is too--too alien!"
           Xavier exchanged a long, significant look with Beast. Yet neither of them displayed the surprise or shock that Henré had expected. Could they have actually anticipated this bizarre development?
           Beast thoughtfully nodded, a speculative gleam in his deep-set blue eyes. Henré recognized that gleam--how often had he looked the same way, when on the trail of some elusive bit of information? Mariah had often teased him for his preoccupation with detail...
           "Your research, Dr. D'Argent," Beast murmured, "supports the theory that the Sphinx is actually much older than was previously believed. Could you make a guess, based on what you saw today, as to how old this artifact might be?"
           Henré reflexively winced. Trust the burly, blue-furred scientist to touch on the very crux of the problem.
           Well, such candor deserved an equally honest answer. He pursed his lips, considering the question, then slowly nodded. "The most conservative estimates now place the Sphinx at being between ten and twelve thousand years old," he candidly admitted. "My research seems to indicate a much older date--possibly as much as eighteen thousand years. Despite the artifact's excellent condition, I would hazard a guess that it is easily as old as the Sphinx herself."
           An awed whistle escaped Gambit as he leaned forward, staring at Henré through the glowing psychic projection. "Dat is one very old device!" he protested, absently shuffling a deck of cards through his long, nimble fingers. "You sure da sun ain't gotten too hot for you, mon ami?"
           Henré smiled at Gambit's doubtful tone. "Believe me, my friend, I have spent most of the day wondering the same thing myself!" he soberly assured the lanky Cajun.
           Beast hardly even seemed to hear their soft, bantering comments. His eyes distant, he stared up at the ceiling, rubbing his chin. Then he soberly met Xavier's clear gaze, obviously disturbed by his own conclusions.
           "Ten thousand years ago, the Shi'ar Empire was still growing in size and strength. It could be one of their primitive devices," he slowly conceded, "yet if it is truly as ancient as Dr. D'Argent suspects, it could easily pre-date the Shi'ar Empire by four to five thousand years!"
           His blue eyes brimming with urgency, he spun back toward Henré. "I must see this device, Dr. D'Argent! If my suspicions are correct, you may have uncovered a device which is as dangerous to us as it is valuable!"
           Xavier frowned. "Explain, Beast," he demanded, his crisp voice harsh with concern. "Surely you do not believe that this device is tied in with our old enemy Apocalypse!"
           Beast's expression seemed haunted as he glanced at each one of them in turn. "By his own account, Apocalypse has lived on our world for thousands of centuries...he claims to have existed here long before mankind even developed sentience!
           "Now Dr. D'Argent has uncovered a device which tentatively dates back to the same period. Yet never once has Apocalypse made any attempt to seize it! As I see it, that can only mean one thing...he has somehow been constrained from possessing it. Which logically means that it may be of tremendous use to us, his long-time enemies."
           "But the danger is over, Beast!" Storm protested. "Apocalypse is gone!"
           Xavier thoughtfully pursed his lips. "Perhaps for now," he conceded. "Keep in mind, however, that we have banished him from our world before, yet he always manages to return somehow. If this device truly is connected to him in some way, it would benefit us to examine and study it."
           Gambit's constant shuffling was getting on Rogue's nerves. She absently laid a hand on his arm as she leaned forward, staring at Henré in open confusion. To the archaeologist's surprise, Gambit instantly stopped, and apologetically smiled down at her. There must be something between them, he thought in growing surprise as the Cajun contented himself with restlessly turning a single card over and over in his long fingers.
           "I just don't get it!" Rogue was protesting, bewildered. Henré quickly recalled himself, and thrust his errant curiosity aside. "I mean, how could that thing still be workin' after all this time? Ain't no one been down in that room to tune it up or anythin' for centuries! So how'd it manage to throw off a telepathic trace? An' why?"
           Xavier soberly shook his head as he pulled the headset off and set it on the table. The holographic map of Egypt promptly vanished. "That is one of the things I am hoping to learn, Rogue," he confided.
           "I respect the fact that you cannot smuggle us into the sacred chamber, Dr. D'Argent," he continued, glancing across the table at the worried archaeologist. "Would you be willing to telepathically link with me instead, so I can relay your impressions back to Cerebro for further study?"
           Telepathically link?
           Henré swallowed hard and nervously stared at the interface helmet. He'd only risked a telepathic link one time before, and the experience had scared the living daylights out of him! There had to be another way...

Chapter 4

           Silence filled the sloping tunnel as Henré cautiously led the way down to the sacred chamber. His sturdy headlamp threw a bright shaft of light across the sandy floor. Then they rounded the sharp corner, and a cool breeze drifted up to meet him. The breath of the gods, he thought, amused by the fanciful notion, as Xavier and his teammates warily hesitated.
           They made a strange-looking band of misfits, he decided, glancing around him. Professor Charles Xavier in his gleaming hoverchair.  Blue-furred Dr. Henry McCoy weighed down with a high-resolution camera and a dozen different sophisticated monitoring devices.  The one they called Wolverine with his lethal-looking claws.  Even his beautiful Ororo, with glowing light emanating from her upraised hands...
           Was he doing the right thing, allowing them down into the Sphinx's sanctuary? Merde, but it was so difficult to know right from wrong sometimes! Alien Shi'ar civilizations, gigantic monsters, battles to save the world from certain destruction...it sounded like something out of a poorly-written fantasy novel!
           Yet he could hardly deny the evidence before his own eyes. He'd long suspected that no human hands had raised the mighty Sphinx...all his studies indicated that she had been created long before mankind had lifted its first tool. He had never published his findings because the world would surely ridicule him...and deny him the one thing he craved, the chance to excavate more sites in search of positive proof.
           Well, he had his proof now. And the world would never be willing to accept it. What else could he do but help his own people in the struggle to protect the ignorant, unenlightened humans? It was his duty as a mutant, and a supporter of Xavier's elite cadré.
           As if he could sense Henré's troubled thoughts, Xavier glanced over and smiled at him. Oddly comforted, the archaeologist politely gestured for them to continue down the tunnel.
           Wolverine's long claws made a soft scraping noise as he allowed Beast to precede him. Then he glanced back at Storm, who was still uneasily lingering a few paces behind them. Was she remembering the long, winding caves beneath Teotihuacan's crumbling pyramids? Well, no feathered serpent was trying to kill them here. He encouragingly touched her arm as he fell into step beside her. Her anxious expression lightened as she forced a half-hearted smile.
           "That was some neat trick you used on those guards, Professor!" he softly exclaimed, hoping to calm the rest of her nebulous fears. "Mind teachin' it to me sometime, in case I ever have trouble sleepin'?"
           Xavier favored the wiry Canadian with a thin, half-reproving smile. "The human mind can be easily influenced," he conceded, "but I prefer not to tamper unless it is strictly necessary, Wolverine. The guards should sleep through the night, and not remember that we have been here."
           "That is for the best, certainly," Henré agreed, relieved, as he hesitated near the chamber entrance. "Now if you will pardon me, my friends, I will leave you here, and return to my tent. There is much to be put in order before tomorrow morning."
           He offered Wolverine a large, sturdy flashlight, then turned to smile at each one of them. "I hope I will have the pleasure of seeing you all again soon?"
           Storm let the light fade from her hands as she leaned forward to affectionately kiss his bearded cheek. "I promise it," she assured him. "And perhaps when this is over, you will join us at Professor Xavier's mansion. Then it will be my turn to buy you a drink!" she teased.
           Gambit lazily leaned against the nearest wall, chuckling. His reddish eyes glittered with wry amusement as he grinned at his distinguished cousin. "Gambit take you out for a night like down in N'Orleans, you 'member, mon ami?  We paint da town red, nón?"
           A reminiscent smile curved Henré's lips as he stroked his beard. "Oui, mon frere," he agreed, "it will be a night to remember!" He chuckled at some particularly enchanting memory, then warmly clasped Gambit's arm. "Ma"as salæma, my friends. Go in peace." Bowing, he turned and hurried back up the steep tunnel.
           The cool desert air embraced him as he cautiously moved between the two peacefully sleeping guards and hurried toward his tent. With Allah's luck, no one would think it strange that he was returning so late...several of his students had headed for Cairo earlier, eager for an evening's revelry. And had he not been visiting old friends, himself?
           Hassan was a wily old fellow, and irascible as a cobra with a broken fang...yet he would unquestioningly corroborate any tale that Henré offered.
           Secure in his servant's devoted loyalty, he ducked beneath the flap of his small private tent and readied himself for sleep.

• • • • •

           Storm lifted her hands again, flooding the tunnel with light, as Henré disappeared up into the darkness. Beside her, Wolverine obligingly clicked on the big flashlight. The resulting glare made him flinch in pain. Grimacing, he sourly rubbed at his aching eyes and pointed the flashlight well away from his rugged face.
           Gambit looked ready to plunge into the darkened chamber, but Rogue's light touch made him hesitate. Xavier was still hovering near the large entrance, his eyes closed as he telepathically re-established contact with Jean. Sighing, the tall Cajun subsided and impatiently waited for the powerful telepath to rejoin them.
           Jean? Can you hear me?
           The dark tunnel dissolved around Xavier as he mentally linked with Cerebro. A moment later, the War Room swam into view.
           Startled, Carly jumped and stared around the large room. "Professor Xavier?"
           Then she remembered the interface headset nestled on her head. A heavy sigh of relief escaped her as she instinctively touched its smooth metal surface. "Uh, Jean's asleep right now. I told her I'd keep an eye on things while she got some rest," she stammered. If only she could 'see' him the way Jean could...she was never going to get used to hearing his disembodied voice echoing in her head!
           Carly's frightened voice roused Jean from a light nap. Stretching, she pushed herself up off the nearby low cot. "It's okay, Carly, I can take over again," she half-yawned. "Anything new on the scanners?"
           The young empath gratefully smiled, relieved by her timely interruption. "Not so much as a blip! Here you go, Jean!" And she handed over the fragile headset as she hurriedly jumped to her feet.
           "Thanks, Carly." Nodding, Jean pulled it over her long auburn hair. "Why don't you go see if Scott and Jubilee have dinner ready yet? I'll call if I need anything."
           It didn't take a genius to sense that she was being politely brushed off. Irritation replaced Carly's pleasure at having done a good job for the Professor. Then she eagerly sniffed as the delicious scent of freshly-grilled steaks wafted into the room. She might not like Xavier's arrogant, overbearing team leader, but she had to admit that Cyclops was an excellent cook! Her eyes widening with delight, she threw Jean an obedient half-salute and hurried away.
           Jean sighed in relief as she leaned back and closed her eyes. "Sorry about that, Professor," she murmured. "She wanted to help out so badly..."
           And she appears to have done a fine job, Jean, Xavier assured her, a faint smile curving his lips as his mental image swam into view. Now, we are about to enter the sacred chamber, he continued. If Dr. D'Argent's presence triggered the artifact earlier, it should also react to our presence. Please let me know immediately if you sense anything unusual.
           Jean soberly nodded, and leaned forward in anticipation. "Of course, Professor." She hesitated, then earnestly met his steady gaze. "Good luck!"
           Her sincere parting wish warmed Xavier as the cold, darkened tunnel materialized around him again. Blinking to clear his vision, he smiled up at his anxious teammates. His chair softly hummed as it rose a few inches higher into the air.
           Wolverine offered him the large flashlight, and politely gestured toward the gaping doorway. Xavier took a deep breath, then aimed its bright light into the large chamber and floated across the wide threshold. The others eagerly clambered into the room after him.
           Then they hesitated, as Henré and his colleagues had, staring around in awed wonder.
           Large chests were stacked in huge piles along the massive stone walls--Yasuf's thin laser had just missed slicing through the side of one that was crammed to overflowing with gold coins and delicate jewelry. Nearby, a long gold-plated table full of intricately-etched figurines gleamed through the thick, accumulated layers of dust and grime. Yasuf's initial efforts to clean them were obvious; glittering gems winked back at them as miniature lightning bolts flickered above Storm's outstretched hands.
           Yet as before, it was the large hexagonal object at the far end of the room which drew and held their fascinated attention. Clearly this must be the alien artifact that had frightened Henré!
           His eyes gleaming with delight, Beast rapidly moved around the expansive chamber, snapping myriad pictures for later study. Storm could almost hear the wheels spinning in his keen mind when he finally turned his attention to the huge, bizarre device.
           "It looks just like a big honeycomb cell!" Rogue suddenly exclaimed, her eyes wide with amazement. "Don't it, Remy?"
           The lanky Cajun nodded. "Yeah...'cept Gambit ain't never seen no twelve-foot bees 'fore," he wryly countered. "Whatever made it, I sure hope dey don' think we be makin' a good midnight snack!"
           Beast was already measuring the immense artifact, and studying the thick stone platform resting beneath it. "It appears to be made of a translucent metal unlike anything I have ever seen before!" he finally concluded, startled by his own analysis. "Roughly ten feet high and across...six uniform segments...and look at the symbols etched into its sides!" he suddenly added, glancing up from his sophisticated multicorder. Without thinking, he moved a few steps closer, the 'corder stretched out in front of him.
           The alien device immediately began to softly glow. At first Xavier thought that it must be reflecting back the light from his flashlight. Then his eyes widened in surprise as he realized that faint, hazy spiral designs seemed to be swirling around the six sides in slow, hypnotic patterns.
           "Look at this, Beast!" he exclaimed, eagerly gliding across the wide stone floor. "Have you ever seen anything like it before?"
           Bemused, the furry scientist shook his head. "No, Professor, I have not! I do not believe it could have been created by the Shi'ar--there is nothing in their historical archives which matches it! And look at the center of the device! It seems hollow, yet I could swear..."
           Intrigued, Xavier curiously moved closer, his flashlight aimed directly into the opalescent haze forming between the six glowing sides. And it was glittering more brightly now, almost as if responding to his proximity...
           Without warning, brilliant shafts of light burst out from the device's corners, and focused directly on his startled face! He stiffened as if caught in a strong electric current, and the flashlight dropped from his frozen fingers. His hoarse cry of surprise echoed through the chamber.
           "Professor!"   Rogue was the first to react...without thinking, she threw herself directly in the beams' paths. Dazzling light instantly surrounded her, seeming to penetrate completely through her writhing body, as she screamed in sudden agony.
           "Rogue!" Yelling, Gambit launched himself across the room, with Wolverine only a pace behind him. Yet before either of them could reach her, the brilliant light suddenly intensified.
           Xavier stared in stunned bewilderment as a ghostly shape seemed to drift away from Rogue's body and move forward, toward the brightly gleaming hexagon. Then it darted into the center of the massive portal and was gone. The beams of light abruptly vanished, plunging the chamber back into semi-darkness. Rogue tumbled to the cold stone floor, unconscious.
           "Rogue!" Gambit's deep voice rang with anguish as he dropped to his knees beside her, cradling her in his long arms. "Come on, chér, wake up!" He gently shook her limp body, but to no avail. "Rogue!"
           Xavier was still frozen in his chair, his eyes glazed with blank shock. "Professor, are you all right?" Storm urged as Beast swept a medical scanner over him. "Can you hear me?"
           Wolverine was already beside Gambit, his bare hand on Rogue's pale cheek. "Come on, darlin'," he rasped, "snap out of it! Wake up!" Light flared around them as his healing energy flowed into her, and he staggered back. Storm was instantly behind him, supporting him as his legs gave way and he sank to the cold floor.
           Gambit stared at him, numb with fear. "It ain't workin' this time, Wolverine! She ain't wakin' up!" he protested.
           Groaning, Xavier slowly blinked and rubbed at his face with both hands, still dizzy from the tremendous psychic blast. "Such incredible power..."
           Relieved that the dazed telepath was starting to recover, Beast quickly bent down beside Rogue and ran the scanner over her. A grim expression darkened his face as he hesitated for several moments, staring at the readouts, then slowly passed the 'corder over her again.
           "We need to return to the mansion immediately, Professor!" he finally frowned.
           Gambit stiffened. "Why, Beast?" he demanded. "What ain't you sayin', eh? What's wrong wit' Rogue?"
           Before the worried scientist could respond, angry shouts suddenly echoed down the long tunnel. A moment later, several bright beams of light erratically danced down the length of the sloping passage. The loud click of safety catches rang in sharp counterpoint to the thudding of a dozen heavy boots.
           Wolverine staggered to his feet, warily sniffing at the air. "Guns!" he yelled. "The guards--they're onto us!"
           Beast spun around, swallowing hard.  "Oh, dear!"

Click here to read Episode II of
"The Sphinx Saga" -
"Separation Anxiety"

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