Apocalypso: Part 7

Last Dance With...?

by Samy Merchi

 

 


* DISCLAIMER * This is a non-profit work of fan-fiction involving characters created and owned by Marvel Comics Group. This story contains EXPLICIT VIOLENCE, and a few lines of EXPLICIT LANGUAGE. If this bothers you, please do not read the story.

* WRITTEN BY * Samy <samerc@mash.yok.utu.fi> Merchi

* ARCHIVED AT * http://mash.yok.utu.fi/corona.html

* CONTINUITY * This story takes place in my Shadows of the Future timeline http://mash.yok.utu.fi/corona/xforce/index.html  in year +3 (three years in the future), on the 4th of July, about half a year after FIRST AND TEN, shortly after YOUR WAY, about half a year before WHO DARES WINS


Palenque. Ruins of an ancient Mayan city high in the rainforested mountains of southeastern Mexico. Night has fallen. Sky is clear. Stars shine down. Moon is full. Palenque has stood for centuries untended to. A quarter of it has been demolished in the past thirty minutes.

"SHATTERSTAR!" Samuel Guthrie shouted from atop a ziggurat, fist rumbling with thermokinetic energy as he glared at the figures on the ground in front of the stepped pyramid. "Close-quarters approach! Tactic November Golf! He's yours!"

"With pleasure, Guthrie!" Shatterstar yelled as he charged forward, double-bladed sword flashing in the moonlight as he pulled it back, then lashed forward as he leaped furiously towards the metallic blue-gray target looming before him. "Your day is DONE, Apocalypse!"

"Many have made that claim, Gaveedra Seven", Apocalypse laughed as a two-handed sword made of his own enigmatic body sprang out from his palm, his hands gripping the hilt. He blocked the X-Forcer's attack with it, then spun around and slashed towards Shatterstar. "None have succeeded!"

"None have been a warrior born", Shatterstar growled as he leaped up, flipped over Apocalypse and with a snarl, thrust his double-blade in the ancient mutant's back and out his chest. Landing in a crouch behind Apocalypse, Shatterstar yanked his blade back out of his foe.

WHAM!

"Few who bear the X", Apocalypse stated as he swung an arm around and enlarged it massively as it smashed into Shatterstar, sending the warrior hurtling thru the air, "have the courage to deliver a killing stroke. Unfortunately for you", his eyes narrowed, "I have absolute control over my body."

Shatterstar flipped around in the air a few times, orienting himself in line with a tree he was flying towards, then landed horizontally against the tree trunk, legs bending to receive the impact. Then straightening explosively as they sent him into a leap forward, directly back towards Apocalypse, hurtling in low towards his foe's knees. "So do I."

Apocalypse laughed as he spread his arms wide, fin-like wings sprouting out underneath the arms as he took off into the air, dodging Shatterstar's leaping charge with ease. "If any of X-Force are survivors, it is you, Gaveedra Seven. But do not presume that being a survivor means being my equal."

"Tactic No Ground accomplished, Guthrie", Shatterstar hissed as he landed in a crouch, jerking his head upwards to follow the de-grounded Apocalypse's flight path.

"Good work, Shatterstar!" Cannonball shouted. "*Douglock*, you're up! Keep 'im up, keep 'im high, don't let 'im get near the buildings anymore, we don't need any more collateral damage!"

"Affirmative, SelFriend!" Douglock answered as he soared up from the ground towards Apocalypse. "SELVES will not allow SelFoeApocalypse to cause further damage to PalenqueStructures!"

"What he said, Apocalypse!" Douglock narrowed his eyes as he focused on the ancient mutant. "Maybe none of us are your equal one-on-one, but the point of being a team is that we *don't* take you on one-on-one. We're a team. We're *family*. We're greater than the sum of our parts!"

"That may be, Douglas", Apocalypse smiled, and suddenly extended an arm in midair, his hand growing to a fridge-sized clamp and leaping thru the air at Douglock, grabbing the techno-organic being in a vicelike grip. "But are you great enough?" he asked, hurling Douglock at the ground as he retracted his arm back to normal size.

"Ah got you, Douglock!" Cannonball blasted thru the air, snatching Douglock before the symbiotic creature hit the ground. "Tab, do Charlie! Ric, you're Daddy!"

"Got it, Sam", Meltdown answered as she leaned towards one of the still-standing buildings, clothing torn, nose and ears bleeding, lacerated all over. She spat out a bit of blood, then glared up at Apocalypse. Her eyes flashed once with golden energy. "One Apocalypse, shaken, not stirred, comin' right up --" she said.

Suddenly a glow encompassed Apocalypse, dozens of small energy spheres winking into existence all around him, like a three-dimensional minefield, no glowing sphere more than a foot away from another as they surrounded X-Force's foe.

"Impressive", Apocalypse halted in midair, inside the minefield. His eyes turned onto Meltdown, sitting on the ground cross-legged, in deep concentration. "Restricting a foe's mobility is not defeating your foe, Tabitha", he said as his right arm morphed into a cannon, pointing at the blonde. "Learn from this." A series of golden energy bolts lanced out from the cannon's muzzle, blasting out at Meltdown.

"Sam!" Rictor shouted out as he stood protectively in front of Meltdown, his arms rumbling with green vibratory energies. "I can't block energy --"

WHOOM! WHOOM! WHOOM!

"Ric! Tab!" Cannonball shouted as three fireballs erupting obscured the pair from sight. "Damn", he hissed, casting an arm towards Apocalypse and firing out a thermokinetic blast as a shot of guilt tore thru him -- it was his tactic that might've gotten his teammates killed. "If they're hurt, Apocalypse --!"

"SelFriend lifesigns scan weak but positive", Douglock swooped low over the smoke and dust that obscured the air all around the impact points of Apocalypse's blasts, making it impossible to see into the target area. "Visual confirmation, pending clarification. SELVES must clear the air!" he announced, holding his open palms out towards the smoke. They morphed into fans and started spinning at buzzing high speed, creating wind and starting to blow away the heavy, obscuring smoke.

"Let this serve as a lesson, Samuel", Apocalypse smiled as he dodged Cannonball's blast with ease, the plasma bomb minefield having winked out of existence the instant the energy bolts had hit and allowed him to maneuver again. "You are not the only one here with a grasp of tactics. I would hardly initiate a decisive assault without tailoring my mode of attack to be unaffected by the defenses."

Shatterstar watched Apocalypse with narrowed eyes from behind a pile of debris. ((Lack the energy to channel my force of will a third time. Most effective approach remaining?)) He looked around the battleground, evaluating anything and everything that could be of use. Then, he leaped over the pile and dashed towards some demolished ruins.

***

"Ha ha ha!" Calypso laughed brightly as fire blazed in her raised fists, lighting up the corridor with furiously flickering reds and yellows. "I can *feel* the power surging in my veins --" she inhaled sharply thru her teeth, exhilarating thrills running up her spine. "Is this how Magnum felt?" she smiled. "Full of raw, unbridled *power*?"

"What --?" Danielle Moonstar gasped at her ex-boyfriend, Roberto da Costa, standing before her in the dank tunnel deep underneath Palenque. Or, at least, Roberto's body. Sweat rose onto her brow, and she wasn't quite sure if it was because of the blazing heat of Roberto's fists -- or the nauseating suspicion welling in the pit of her stomach that the Roberto before her wasn't Roberto.

"Don't worry", Calypso laughed a bit more as she noticed Dani, casting a smile in the Cheyenne's direction. "I could easily slay you with this power I can feel dancing in your lover's body. But", her eyes turned serious, "he loves you." The two women stared at each other for several moments, Dani's stomach turning over and over again. "He was willing to sacrifice himself for you. I will not disgrace such love by reneging on our agreement. I have him -- you may keep your life." Her eyes flared with solar energy as they narrowed. "Never forget the sacrifice he made for you."

"You *bitch*..." Dani hissed, a growl slowly rising in her throat as her anger steadily grew to overwhelm and overpower her shock and nervousness. "You bastard..." she then murmured, quieter, her eyes widening a bit as something occurred to her. Was this Roberto's way of forcing her to love him? Was he that sick? That twisted? Kill himself and give her angst for the rest of her life, rather than let her walk away from him? He couldn't -- could he?

"I will now take my leave", Calypso smiled to Dani, unfazed by the insults as if not even having heard them. "Don't stand in my way."

Of course, Dani had always been, and always would be, too stubborn to listen to threats. Clenching her hands into fists, she stepped right in front of Calypso, gritting her teeth, sweat pouring down her temples, salt stinging her eyes. Their footsteps echoing in the firelit corridor. "Give him back to me, Calypso."

"No", Calypso answered sharply. "The choice was made. The agreement, sealed. I will not be caught in an infinite tug of war between the two of you wishing to sacrifice yourselves for each other."

"I'm not asking you!" Dani snarled. "I am a Valkyrie, Calypso! A chooser of the slain! *You* are *dead*! And *I* am telling you, *literally*", her face darkened as her voice rose, louder, and louder, "*where to GO*!"

Calypso hissed and took a step back, glaring at Dani warily for a moment. "I was dead", she narrowed her eyes, "but no longer. Valkyrie or not, your lover gave up his life force for my taking. *Calypso*", she bared teeth, "*lives*, once more."

"Not for long!" a new voice snapped out, light blazing behind Calypso. Before the sorceress wearing Roberto da Costa's body could whirl around towards the voice, a blazing silver flame erupted out her chest.

"AIIEEEE!" Calypso screamed, back arching as the flame impaled her from behind. Spasming a few times in agony, finally her body collapsed, toppling forward off the flame, crashing limply headlong onto the stone floor of the hallway. She did not bleed a single drop of blood. Behind her, in the dark corridor, the flame's silver light gleamed off an armored silhouette.

"And NOW, Calypso, before you can cause any more trouble --!" Dani shouted as soon as the body crashed down, a hand shooting forward as she grabbed something in midair right in front of her that only she could see. Her fingers crushed around the intangible, invisible spirit's throat, her eyes ablaze with magical energies. "By the power vested in the sisterhood of the *Valkyries*, the Choosers of the Slain *thus designated* by the All-Father *Odin* himself --" she recited angrily, feeling the words come to her almost involuntarily, furious eyes glaring straight into Calypso's horrified visage, frozen in shock "-- you are found *dead*, Calypso, *slain*, and by the judgement of *Moonstar* of the Valkyries, so will you remain *forevermore*, CAST DOWN TO THE REALM OF HEL where you will remain until the *END OF TIME*!"

The last words were screamed out as loud as Dani's throat and lungs managed. But she wasn't the only one screaming. Two women screamed, simultaneously. One in terror, desperation. One in anger, frustration. The latter -- was louder. Finally, not three heartbeats later, Danielle Moonstar fell onto her knees, sobbing, hiding her face in her hands. No one was screaming anymore, but to her, it sounded like both of them still were, the noise echoing over and over and over again, either in the hallway or just in her head. She wasn't sure which it was.

***

FWASHHH

"No!" Cannonball gasped as a bright flash of light exploded right in front of him, everything suddenly going white dotted with multicolored stars floating around. "Can't see where I'm --"

WHAKOOM!

"Sam!" Douglock shouted as X-Force's blinded and disoriented leader arced down from the sky and smashed into one of the still-standing buildings of Palenque. The small one-story house creaked for a moment or two after a human comet had crashed down thru its roof. Then, the ceiling and walls all collapsed inward, debris burying Samuel Guthrie underneath wood and rock.

"Everyone has a weakness, Douglas", Apocalypse explained as he pulled a loop in the sky, his left arm morphing back from a light-projector gun into an arm. "Samuel is nigh invulnerable when blasting, but that is of little help to him if he can't see where he is going."

"Alarm! SelFriendsBoomBoomAndRictor not moving!" Douglock stated as his fans finally dispersed the cloud of dust and smoke that had lingered over the two fallen X-Force members. The fans slowed down and morphed back into hands as Douglock's head turned, eyes locking onto Apocalypse. "ApocalypsEntity has caused grievous harm to SelFriends! ApocalypsEntity must be *stopped*!"

"You are one of the most fascinating individuals here", Apocalypse studied Douglock with an unwavering gaze as he took on a bit of altitude. "Unlike the Excalibur Douglock, you appear to be a symbiosis of Douglas Ramsey and Warlock, from what I can deduce out of your speech patterns. Your body exhibits Technarch traits instead of Phalanx ones. It would be most interesting to examine you in more detail."

"You *wish*, pal!" Douglock hissed as he soared after Apocalypse. "Selves functions nominal. Lifeglow satisfactory. SELVES will protect SelFriends from SelFoe!" he stated firmly as his body slammed to Apocalypse's, tackling the larger man in midair.

"You have not been very successful so far", Apocalypse smiled confidently, grabbing Douglock's arms as the two wrestled in the air. "Your Technarch potential is immense, quite possibly capable of rivaling or even surpassing mine. Yet you fail to utilize it properly. Your former mentors have failed in their duties to make you the best you can --"

BLAM!

"Pneumatic discharge of projectile detected!" Douglock glanced towards the ground. "A gunshot!" he added, eyes locking onto two figures underneath threatened by a third, down below ground level in a massive pit that had been the subterranean Hall of Life and Death before its ceiling had been torn apart. "N'garaiCreature approaching two possiblefriend humans! Selves must provide assist--"

"Helping the weak dilutes and pollutes humanity's gene pool with inferiority", Apocalypse grabbed Douglock by the throat. "If they are worthy of surviving", he continued, grabbing the techno-organic creature's wrist, and with a sudden wrench, ripping the arm off, "then they will find a means of doing so on their own."

"*SCREAM*!" Douglock shouted as the arm tore off from the shoulder. "SelveSystems severely damaged, upper left extremity detached, lifeglow weak --"

"I have him, Douglas", Apocalypse said, his eyes going blank. "But his mind is strong. I cannot hold him for long. Get away from him, immediately."

"Suggestion complied", Douglock gasped as he pulled away from Apocalypse's grasp, clutching his mauled shoulder with his remaining hand and flying away shakily. "Selves increasing distance between SelFoe and Selves --"

"Then it is time for MAGMA to exact vengeance for you, my friend!" a voice shouted, the battlefield lighting up clear as day as Amara Juliana Olivians Aquilla emerged from behind a building and powered up into her fiery, glowing lava form, bright yellow like the sun itself. Casting her arms upwards, a stream of fire and molten stone blasted out as she channeled anger and fury from the core of the planet.

"I'm letting him go -- *now*!" Xi'an Coy Manh called out from the other side of the battlefield, the angular 'Karma' aura instantly fading out from around her head as she released her telepathic control of Apocalypse.

"ARGH!" Apocalypse cried out as the magma blast struck him dead center like a relentless torrent from a fire hydrant, only instead of cooling water, it was hard, unyielding, burning stone that hit him. Nothing to brace himself against in midair, he was knocked back dozens of feet by the force of the impact, crashing to the ground at an empty, paved square.

"Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes..." Douglock landed on the ground, gasping weakly as the glow of his body that indicated his energy status was very dim. He sagged a bit, leaning against a tree trunk for support as he looked around. Four of his six teammates in the Fallen Angels. But, "Where's --?"

***

"Illyana..." Dani gasped as she looked up, still on her knees, at the woman in silvery armor standing a dozen feet or so down the hallway, beyond the unmoving body of Roberto da Costa.

"My Soulsword exorcised the possession out of Bobby", Illyana Nikolovna Rasputina stated neutrally as she regarded the Cheyenne woman. An intangible silver flame burned, flickered, danced in her hand, in the shape of a sword. They stared at each other for several moments, a tense silence reigning, before Illyana broke the silence, speaking again. "Hi."

"Hey..." Dani sighed, and averted her eyes from Illyana, instead moving over to Roberto and putting her fingers to his neck to find a steady pulse. "Thank the spirits..." she murmured in relief, and then asked, without looking up to Illyana, "He'll be okay?"

"No", Illyana shrugged noncommittally, "but he'll be back to normal."

Dani tried not to, but couldn't help smiling a little. "Thanks..." she said quietly.

"No biggie", Illyana chirped with a shrug of her shoulders. "Two seconds of mild effort isn't a big price to pay for getting to watch a nice butt day in and day out." She remained silent for a few moments, then added flatly, "Even if it belongs to you."

Dani stood up gradually, her back to Illyana, her arms slowly wrapping around herself in a hug. "He...he's", she started and felt her voice breaking. She took a deep breath, swallowed, raised her chin and said, "He's not mine anymore. We broke up today."

Illyana's expression remained flat and emotionless except for a single quirked eyebrow. "'m sorry to hear that", she said tonelessly, not taking a step in any direction. She could hear breathing in the dark hallway, but wasn't sure if it was hers, Dani's or Roberto's.

"Aren't you going to ask why?" Dani whispered, staring at the cold stone floor in front of her.

"No", Illyana shrugged. "It's none of my business."

Dani turned her head slowly, just barely enough to look at Illyana from the very corner of her eye. She became acutely aware of too many little details of how Illyana Rasputin looked like Juliana Sandoval. Beyond just the 'stunning, gorgeous, beautiful, knock-out blonde' part. "I hope not", she mumbled.

Illyana pretended she hadn't heard it.

***

"Scatter!" Manoli Wetherell shouted, shoving his partner-in-reporting, Neal Conan, away from her. Sharp claws tore thru where he had been standing, and cut deep gashes into Manoli's forearm, blood spattering into the air. She cried out in pain, the gun in her hand clattering to the stone floor of the large hall they were in.

"MANOLI!" Neal screamed as he stumbled away from her, trying to regain his balance from the shove. Not that it'd matter -- they were both dead meat and he knew it. Without the gun, neither of them were a match for the monstrous ten-foot tall N'garai creature in front of them. His eyes locked with its for a fraction of a second, then it let out an ear-splitting squeal of triumph and slashed its long-clawed arm towards him and the camera on his shoulder, filming his upcoming demise.

"NEAL!" Manoli had time to scream.

None of them looked up to see a figure leaping down into the huge pit in the ground that the Hall of Life and Death was.

"DIE!" the redheaded figure screeched viciously as it landed atop the N'garai's shoulders, crossing its legs around the monster's neck. A pair of dull white daggers flashed in the moonlight, one in each hand, before being mercilessly driven down.

A desperate squeal rocked the air as green ichor splattered from the N'garai's punctured eyes. The daggers thrust in to the hilt and twisted around, making the N'garai spasm and flail its limbs wildly, half in agony, half in a last-ditch effort to throw off the shadowed figure on its shoulders.

WHACK!

"OOFF!" Manoli wheezed as a flailing backhand sent her crashing to the wall, a soft snap of bone ringing out before she slumped limply down at the foot of the wall. Neal either didn't notice or was too caught up in filming the twisting and squealing N'garai to pull his attention away from it.

A few more times, the daggers came plunging down and pulling up again, drawing green messes flying into the air in arcs behind the blades. The N'garai spasmed a last time, its mauled head silhouetted over the white disc of the moon, before it toppled forward and crashed to the ancient stone floor.

Neal watched thru the camera as the victorious redheaded figure stood up from atop the N'garai, posture straight and defiant, chin raised. She propped a foot on the dead creature's back, ichor dripping onto it from the daggers in her hands.

"No matter who or what you are, there will always be a better hunter", Marrow wrinkled her nose at the N'garai, teeth gritted. "Me."

"I hope you're better even when you don't get the -- pardon the pun -- drop on them", Neal pointed out, gasping a bit breathlessly as he released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Then, he pointed with the index finger of his free, non-camera-wielding hand, towards the pool of blood at the center of the hall.

Marrow turned her head in the direction to see a fresh N'garai rise out of the pool, little streams of dark liquid draining down its skin, dripping from its long limbs, back down to the pool. Her eyes narrowed, and she turned her body around, to face the new arrival fully, putting herself between the pool and the two reporters.

She hissed a little. Then, a pop. A crack. A little tearing noise. Bones and muscle, grinding and gnashing. Neal watched with wide eyes as Marrow's shape started changing, sharp protrusions of bone sprouting from her head, her neck, her arms, her torso, her legs. All over, more and more bone burst and tore thru her skin to join their predecessors. Blood flowed down her body from the exit wounds the bone protrusions ripped open, pooling at her feet. She gave no voice to her pain, the only sounds coming from her being the crunching and tearing. In a matter of moments, she was covered all over by an ridged and rough armor of bone, complete with a bone helmet leaving only her unmarred face uncovered, the only part of her body completely free of bone sprouts. She wasn't giving up her face. Never again.

Marrow stared into the N'garai's eyes. Her tight lips pulled back, to reveal teeth. A little snarl grew in her throat. Fingers gripped the bone daggers in her hands tightly. "Come", she whispered.

With a ferocious squeal, the N'garai hurled itself right at Marrow.

***

((We are, of course, yours to command, Samuel)), Xi'an Coy Manh used her telepathy to speak directly to the minds of her allies, both X-Forcers and Fallen Angels, as she stood atop the ziggurat shape of the Temple of Inscriptions, pale moonlight bathing her unassuming, silent figure.

((Thanks, Shan)), Cannonball sighed in relief as he mustered his strength, ensheathing himself in his blast field once more and expanding it outwards carefully to push away the hundreds of pounds of debris burying him. Clearing away the debris from over and around him, he pushed himself up onto his knees, then his feet. He still couldn't see nor hear, but Xi'an was, graciously enough, serving as his eyes and ears, letting him see and hear everything she did. It made for weird perspectives, though, seeing thru someone else's eyes and having to move yourself like a video game character, watching yourself from the outside. "What gives, Apocalypse?" he called out. "What do you have to gain with this fight?"

"Enough to make it worthwhile", Apocalypse's blue lips smiled as he landed a few dozen feet in front of X-Force's leader. "Do tell me, Samuel --" he started, holding one of those annoyingly dramatic pauses, his smile widening before he finished. "What, exactly, do you know of the *Externals*?"

***

Douglock's severed arm had fallen to the ground, discarded. It morphed, reconfigured into a rocket-like structure, and ignited, flying into the air. Like a seeker missile, it unerringly sought out its target and zoomed towards it.

Douglock grabbed the arm as it arrived and placed it next to the stump at the shoulder, letting the techno-organic matter re-integrate and knit back together. He gave a little flinch and a gasp, and then announced, "Selves integrity restored. Lifeglow status poor, situation unaltered." His circuits glowing a dull blue, he leaned against one of the still-standing buildings for support, posture sagging. "We're still screwed."

SQUEALL!

The high-pitched noise snapped Douglock's head around towards the Hall of Life and Death. "Sound pattern unrecognized", Douglock spoke aloud to no one in particular. "Sounded like scraping nails on a chalkboard", he grimaced. "Comparing -- negative", he answered himself. "Patterns inconsistent -- sound not 'nails on a chalkboard'." He sighed and closed his eyes. "I said 'like', not '*exactly* like -- ah, nevermind..." Pushing himself off the wall, he started towards the pit, half-stumbling in his low-energy condition. "Let's go see what it is..."

Approaching the pit, more noises reached his aural sensors. Growling, tearing, ripping, hissing, shouting. His pace quickened into a run as he looked around and realized who he couldn't see anywhere aboveground. Reaching the edge, he gaped down into the pit with wide eyes. "SARAH!"

***

Red and green blood splashed into the air, one wave after another, mixing into each other and splattering the walls with black and brown. Chunks of dark chitinous skin flew around, followed by shards of white bone. Marrow ignored the calling out of her name, perhaps didn't even hear it, sinewy arms soaked with a literally bloody mess striking forward again and again, slashing bone daggers across the gut of the N'garai ripping into her.

She ducked, letting a long arm slash over her, stabbing one of her daggers right into the N'garai's elbow as it passed her over. The creature squealed, yanking its arm back reflexively and the embedded dagger along with it. Retaliating, it slashed its other arm upwards in an arc, ripping upwards from Marrow's abdomen to her shoulder, tearing off the bony right shoulderguard of the Fallen Angel's armor, throwing Sarah backwards into a wall with a hard slam.

"UNGH!" Marrow wheezed, and then a snarl rose in her throat as she brushed the back of her hand across her bloodied face while the shoulderguard clattered to the floor across the hall. In a few heartbeats, the shoulder that had become exposed, torn and mauled from the force of the rip that removed the armor piece, stopped bleeding. Pushing herself back onto her feet, she flipped the remaining dagger around a few times in her fingers before taking a firm grip on it. She and the N'garai circled each other slowly, glaring at each other.

The N'garai's eyes glinted once. Marrow smiled. It charged forward. She leaped up. Bone dagger flashed towards the N'garai's right eye. Unfortunately, it was too fast. Its uninjured arm slashed at Marrow's attacking arm, the impact jarring the dagger from her fingers and sending it hurtling across the Hall along with chunks of armor from her forearm.

Undeterred, Marrow continued on her trajectory thru the air towards the N'garai. With a, "RRARGH!" borne as much from pain as from fury, she sprouted a sharp protrusion not unlike a horn from her forehead, and rammed her forehead into what passed for one between the N'garai's eyes.

Not expecting the head butt, the N'garai received it full-force, squealing and screeching as a burst of green fluid spattered from the spot where the horn plunged into the insectoid creature's forehead.

"I've got it, Sarah!" Douglock shouted as he grabbed the N'garai's torso from behind, his arms wrapping around its waist and tensing to hold it in place. He wasn't as strong as Roberto or Proudstar, but his Technarch muscles, proverbial as they were, should be enough for the job. Or so he figured. "SelFoe immobilized!" he smiled widely.

"Doug! No!" Sarah screamed with eyes suddenly wide in an uncharacteristic show of concern. Too late, however. The N'garai's limbs were more than long enough for an impromptu back-scratching exercise. Reaching behind it, its claws tore into Douglock's back, ripping the Technarch off like a tick. In good condition, Douglock might have been able to fight back. As it was, he was half-dead already from the thrashing Apocalypse had given him.

Both Fallen Angels screamed as the N'garai's hand brought Douglock in front of its gaping maw, and the powerful jaws chomped down. Marrow's guard was down as her eyes were wide in terror, her jaw slack. The N'garai's free arm tore into her, ripping open the bone armor over the front of her torso, exposing the soft flesh underneath. She didn't let out any sounds of pain as the bones snapped and flew, and she was knocked back a few dozen feet thru the air, to crash onto her back.

Apparently, Douglock wasn't to the N'garai's tastes, as it recoiled from biting down on him, its maw opening and giving him a breather. But only for a fraction of a second, before its arm swung around and threw him across the Hall. He crashed to the floor, sparks flew from the point where he touched down, he bounced, crashed down again. More sparks flew as he skidded along the floor. His body barely had any lifeglow at all, his circuits glowing a dull blue, fading, getting blacker to match the coloration of his body.

SPLASH!

"Doug!" Marrow screamed as Douglock disappeared into the pool of blood, a spray of the red liquid splashing upwards, then spattering back down to the pool before the heavy liquid settled again, leaving behind no trace of Douglock.

The N'garai focused its attention on Marrow again, rearing its head and squealing triumphantly once before its eyes fixed on her and it started stalking forward towards her.

Once more, a snarl grew in Marrow's throat as she pushed herself up again, not caring how many times she had done it before. "Don't you people ever DIE?!" she roared as bone punctured the back of her neck from the inside, quickly growing longer until it was a foot-long handle sticking up. She gripped it with both hands, then tore on it furiously, screaming in pain.

Blood flew everywhere as more and more bone followed the handle out of her. A second later, she brought the rough, ridged bone sword to bear in front of her, her own blood streaming down the blade that was almost as long as she was, then dripping to the floor at her feet.

Both of them roared at the top of their lungs as they charged each other. The N'garai slashed its claws at Marrow's head in a sweeping blow carrying immense momentum. The tip of the sword met the N'garai's chest and blasted thru, out the back, impaling the creature but not stopping the blow.

SNAP!

The bone helmet flew off in several pieces, smashed to pieces by the claws. Her cheek was ripped literally open, separating the flesh of the upper cheek from the lower cheek. The blow blacked her eyes out, she crashed onto her side, the bleeding of her cheek already stopping by the time she lay still on the floor. The N'garai towered over her, squealing in triumph, seeming to ignore the sword impaling its torso.

BOOM!

The side of the N'garai's head exploded in a green mess. It stumbled back from Marrow, obviously surprised, arms flailing back and forth aimlessly, slashing at empty air around it.

Smoke trailed up from the tip of the gun Neal Conan was holding, his face pale and almost completely drained of blood. He felt sick to his stomach. Behind him, Manoli Wetherell coughed blood, sitting on the floor, leaning back against the wall as she held the camera on her shoulder, filming the injured N'garai.

Marrow hissed quietly as she forced herself to see thru the black shroud covering her eyes. She brushed the wet, hot blood away and saw a little better, double vision was better than no vision. "And now..." she growled, her forearm tensing as she used her power to grow more bone inside her. "Something I learned from someone..."

With a blood-curdling war cry, Sarah leaped at the N'garai, shoving her arm right into the creature's open maw.

SCHLUKT!

The N'garai froze, its remaining eye staring into the distance, spasmed, and then collapsed limply onto the floor.

Sarah pulled her arm from the N'garai's maw, standing over the fallen creature. "'I'm the best there is at what I do, and what I do isn't very nice.' Heh", she chuckled with dry amusement as green ichor dripped from the trio of bone claws that had sprouted out of the back of her fist.

Then, she froze, and went pale under the blood drenching her all over. "Doug", she murmured with a constricted throat, then ran towards the pool of blood. She leaped in without a second thought, broke the surface for a brief moment, and then she was gone.

***

"Boom Boom?" Chance winced at the sight of the blonde woman who had been caught in the explosion earlier. Rictor was in a decent shape, but Meltdown... Blood covered half of her face and it didn't look too good. ((Where are you, Xi'an?)) Chance grimaced and tried to broadcast over the telepathic link Karma had formed. ((Boom Boom needs some help, she doesn't look too good...))

((I'm on my way)), Xi'an rushed down the steps of the Temple of Inscriptions, glancing worriedly in the direction of Sam and Apocalypse for a moment before focusing her attention on the crater up ahead where Chance was with the two injured X-Forcers. ((Are they both breathing?))

((How the hell should I know??)) Chance half-yelled in her thoughts. ((I'm not a goddamned doctor, you're the med student! And why am I always the one who ends up having to help you patch everyone up just because I don't have fancy ray powers?!))

((That is exactly why, Chance. There is a place for everyone)), Xi'an answered as she reached the crater and skidded down the slope over to Chance and Meltdown. "Go check Rictor's pulse. Hold your fingertips at this point", she indicated, "on his wrist and you should feel if there is a pulse. I will attend to Tabitha." She looked over to the blonde and brushed some bloody strands of hair away from her face to better inspect how badly she was injured. ((Samuel, can you see by yourself yet? I need to concentrate on Tabitha.))

((Is she all right?)) Sam asked with anxious concern over the telepathic link. ((Don't worry about me, Shan, I'll manage -- do whatever you need, your priority's makin' sure she's okay.))

((I will do my best --)) Xi'an nodded and cleaned some blood off Tabitha's face, wincing a little at the location of a bleeding wound she discovered. ((Illyana, can you hear me? I need you as soon as possible --))

"Fast enough?" Illyana Rasputin asked as a disk of light blazed into existence beside Xi'an, depositing the blonde sorceress, Roberto and Dani down in the crater with the Vietnamese woman. She let the blazing sword-shaped silver flame in her hand flicker and die, along with her silver armor that winked away as well, leaving her clad in a caped, hooded black and white uniform. "Whatcha need?"

"Transportation back to New York", Karma answered. "Take us directly to the hospital. Tabitha is in need of immediate medical attention. Let me check on Rictor first. He may be in need of care as well."

"Okie-dokie", Illyana nodded.

"What's wrong with Boom Boom?" Chance asked with a frown as she made room for Karma to come inspect Rictor.

"'Boom Boom'", Illyana snickered. "Gods, that cracks me up every time... Even I wouldn't call myself that..."

"Shan, you handle things over here", Dani ordered as she turned her head around, eyes locking onto Sam and Apocalypse. "Illyana, Chance, give her any help she might need", she added before with a twinkle of energy she willed her seething blue psionic energy bow into existence. "'Berto..."

***

((Not yet)), Sam replied to something over the psionic link, his vision starting to clear up a little -- enough, at least, to see a dark blue blur in front of him where Apocalypse supposedly was. "Frankly, Apocalypse, I don't give a fig about the Externals anymore", he answered the ancient mutant's earlier question. "Most of 'em are dead now, and it'll be decades 'fore it becomes important whether I'm one of them, anyway. Ain't that a hoot?" he asked, half-sarcastically. "Bunch'a mutants who lived for centuries an' were supposedly immortal, and they go and croak within the couple o' years we knew 'em."

"*Can* an immortal 'croak', Samuel?" Apocalypse raised an eyebrow neutrally, Xi'an still transmitting to Sam's ears even if not his eyes. "Both of us stand here right now, don't we? Despite having 'died' in the past."

"I ain't playing this game, Apocalypse", Sam narrowed his eyes. "Cable, Gideon, Saul, Selene, they've all jerked my chain 'round, intentionally or unintentionally, about me bein' an External or not. It doesn't *matter*. Ah'm still the same person Ah've ever been."

"Yes", Apocalypse smiled. "You are. But are you the same person you always *thought* you were?"

"Back off, Apocalypse", Roberto soared in from the direction of the crater, halting in midair behind Sam's right shoulder, fists blazing with fire as he glared at Apocalypse. "Leave Sam alone or there won't be enough left of you to fill a burial urn with."

"I wouldn't pick quite as macho a way of putting it, but I agree with the general sentiment", Dani added from behind Sam's left shoulder, the tip of her bow's swirling blue energy arrow trained right on Apocalypse's forehead. "Calypso's dead, Apocalypse. We don't have to fight anymore. Leave."

"Leave", Sam agreed.

"You three", Apocalypse smiled as he regarded the three founding New Mutants arranged defiantly in a row before him, "are the heart and soul of X-Force. The core of this family. Without at least one of you, it will not stand. It is truly a shame to have to eliminate part of it."

"Which part?" Sam asked, narrowing his eyes and tensing up.

Apocalypse fixed his eyes onto Sam's and said, bluntly, "You. I can't afford having other Externals meddling with my plans."

"Let's take him", Sam said.

***

BWHOOM!

"Sacre mere..." Xi'an gasped as ground and air alike shook from the force of a blast. She turned her head around to see Roberto hovering in midair, a hand smoldering and in front of him a straight groove in the ground where Apocalypse had been blasted back for a good five hundred feet into the jungle.

***

"He's away from the ruins!" Roberto shouted as he zoomed higher into the night sky, lighting the whole area up by starting to glow brightly. "Amara!"

BRA-KA-KOOM!

A miniature volcano erupted precisely and exactly where Apocalypse had been blasted, the earth shaking with Amara Aquilla's fiery temper as she swung her fists skywards near the base of the Temple of Inscriptions, beckoning the underground inferno of the planet to follow her gestures. The white hot eruption hundreds of feet from her sent out a scorching heatwave that forced everyone save Sam, Amara and Roberto to turn their faces away.

The two men followed up on the attack almost instantly, not allowing for a breather. Up in the air on opposite sides of the volcano, they cast their arms towards it and cut loose with blasts that, joining forces, for all intents and purposes nuked their target area. Every piece of matter within a hundred feet of the epicenter was cut down and vaporized. The superheated air rocketed upwards, sending a pillar of fire towards the skies, leaving a temporary vacuum before air rushed in from all sides, filling the gap like the Red Sea crashing down on the empty space. Winds tore foliage from the trees, made it hard for X-Forcers and Fallen Angels alike to stand.

The sudden winds started quickly abating as pressure levels evened out, trees on the edges of the annihilated area catching fire and starting to burn. Roberto spread his arms and absorbed the heat from the fires, giving them a quick, sharp snap of frostbite that quenched them.

Apocalypse pushed himself up onto his knees at the very center of the scorched, blackened earth. "Not...bad..." he said, and then stood straight again. He smiled. "No mercy. No holding back. Good. I will very much look forward to seeing how far the rebellion of youth will inspire the children that *your* generation will eventually come to teach."

***

Xi'an closed her eyes and murmured a quick prayer. If Apocalypse could withstand that, how could they possibly stand against him? But -- it didn't matter, did it? He had been right. They were family. And family stays together, no matter what. "Take them, Illyana", she said determinedly, standing up from beside the unconscious Rictor.

"What about you?" Illyana asked neutrally as two disks of golden light materialized underneath Meltdown and Rictor, rising and swallowing them up, then winking out.

"I can not go", Xi'an stated, dark hair rustling in the wind as she turned her body to face the way Apocalypse was, fixing a tense expression on her face. "Take them to a hospital. There will always be someone there who can help them. But there is no one here but me who can help Samuel see and hear."

Illyana smiled a little, a softer and more affectionate expression than she usually displayed. "Be careful", she said, before disappearing herself on a disk of golden light.

Xi'an swallowed, crossed herself, and then started walking towards the battleground. "Can you not neutralize Apocalypse's powers with your powers, Chance?" she asked her fellow oriental Angel.

"Don't you think I've tried?" Chance rolled her eyes. "You think I'm either too stupid to think of that, or that I enjoy watching everyone fight for their lives?"

"I was only making certain you had thought of it", Xi'an said softly. "I am sorry if I offended you." She held a little pause, then continued. "You can do more than merely neutralize mutant powers. Apocalypse has a very strong mind. I will need your help to amplify my telepathic talents if I am to have any reasonable..." She paused for a moment at the word at the tip of her tongue. Many would have smiled at it. Xi'an Coy Manh did not. Wild card though she might have been, she was no joker. "...chance at prevailing."

***

The pool hadn't looked that deep from the outside, but now that Marrow was in it, it felt like it had no limits. No bottom, no sides, no nothing, like an endless sea. The worst thing about it was that she couldn't see at all in it, the blood being more than thick enough to obscure sight.

She was running out of air quickly, the fight with the N'garai having made her well breathless. Her lungs felt like they were going to explode, but she couldn't find it in herself to try to find the surface again and leave Doug here...in the dark...alone... It was her job to protect him... But...she started blacking out...

Just in the nick of time, she felt something brush against her thigh, and grabbed onto it as hard as she could, kicking with all her strength towards what she thought was the surface, all the while wishing *really* hard that what she grabbed onto wasn't yet another N'garai.

"GHAHH!" she cried out as she broke surface, gasping and sputtering for air, coughing and wheezing, panting and trying to fill her lungs with sweet fresh air that smelled so different here in the mountains than in the sewers of New York, even accounting for the stench of blood in her nostrils.

She looked around the Hall of Life and Death a few times to make sure no new N'garai were lurking anywhere, and then dragged herself out of the pool. Taking a few deep breaths, she then pulled on whatever her hand was still holding, starting to drag it out of the blood pool. Fortunately for her, it was Douglock.

Metal and circuitry was heavier than flesh and bone, and Sarah had to strain her muscles dragging her teammate up from the pool. As she did, she noticed odd strands floating around in it. Frowning, she picked one strand up in the hand that still had claws sprouting from the back of it, and looked at it. It looked almost like circuitry...almost as if Douglock had been unraveling in the pool... "What...?" she murmured, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

"Transmode...virus..." Douglock gasped as he lay on his side on the stone floor beside the pool, the dark liquid dripping and flowing down his body and forming a little puddle under him. "Lifeglow too weak...to control virus... SelFriend advised...to avoid physical contact...with Selves... Get away from me, Sarah..."

Marrow froze and quickly glanced at the hand with which she had hauled Douglock out of the pool. It was clean of any techno-organic circuitry and she sighed in relief, throwing the strands in her other hand back into the pool as if they burned to the touch.

That's when she noticed that the techno-organic matter in the pool was growing. It looked like a little pond icing over -- the strands spread and formed a thin webwork all over the surface of the pool, covering more area by the second, growing thicker. Within a matter of moments, it had grown from a thin film covering the pool into a solid surface.

Marrow took a step back. Then another. And another.

***

"So", Apocalypse stated, unintimidated, as he stood on one side of a fifty-foot diameter silver disk hovering in empty astral space. "You would challenge me one on one?" he asked, watching the figure standing on the opposite side of the disk from him. "Do you think you can prevail?"

"What I think or do not think is unimportant, Apocalypse", Karma answered steadily. "What I can or cannot do is what matters. Neither of us will find out how much that is until I try. And try I shall, for the sake of my friends." Still, she just stood in place, unwilling -- perhaps afraid? -- of initiating a conflict.

"Indeed", Apocalypse watched Xi'an with scrutinizing eyes. "Heroism is a most admirable trait. But are you a hero, Xi'an Coy Manh? Have you considered the consequences of your actions in full? Admittedly, I am unaware of events that may have transpired since my seeming death, but if I recall correctly, you have two younger siblings", he smiled. "Are you willing to put your life on the line in pointless battles such as this, knowing that were you ever to lose, your siblings will be left without you?"

Xi'an's face winced a little. "I --" she started.

"You're ignoring the facts, Xi'an", Apocalypse narrowed his eyes, staring at her with a triumphant smile. "You put yourself at risk, day after day, and try not to think about the consequences, rather than thinking your choice in life through and then accepting it. Embracing it! Everytime you end up at risk, you will have to doubt yourself and your convictions. There is no room for doubt in heroism, Xi'an. Doubt", he said, suddenly raising his arm, turning it into a cannon and firing a bolt of energy, "makes you weak!"

"NO!" Xi'an gasped, flinching a step backwards as she raised an astral shield in front of her, the bolt smashing into it and straining her defenses, a jolt of pain shooting thru her expression. Barely, she stopped it from breaking thru.

"Hesitation makes your weak", Apocalypse said sharply as he sprang forward, smashing thru Xi'an's weakened shields and grabbing her throat. "The best defense is a good offense. You must not give your enemies a chance to talk you into doubting yourself as I just did. You must act, swiftly and mercilessly, and strike the decisive blow before they do. Do I make myself clear, Xi'an?" he growled, face turning menacing as he raised her up into the air by the throat with one powerful arm. "If you are to be a survivor, you must be *strong*. You must believe in yourself and your cause. Never doubt, *never* hesitate. Always do what you *must* regardless of what it is!"

Xi'an gasped for breath reflexively even if she needed no air on the astral plane. Her face tightened, a little stinging rose in her eyes as Apocalypse's powerful fingers tightened on her throat. In the corporeal world, he could have snapped her neck in a second, both of them knew that, but here -- Xi'an's own psychic prowess could hold back his onslaught -- to a degree. "Y-- yes..." she gasped out and then tensed her leg.

Apocalypse flinched as Xi'an's foot smashed into his groin, a spasm of pain shooting thru his face and his hold on her throat slipping momentarily as he stumbled back a few steps, a furious expression on his face that despite everything had some hint of hidden pleasure gleaming in his eyes.

"You may be fully mechanical in the physical world, m'sieu", Xi'an brought a hand to her throat as if to check whether it was still there, "but here in the realm of the mind, whatever alterations your corporeal body may have undergone are irrelevant."

Half-glaring, half-smiling at Xi'an, Apocalypse slowly straightened his posture again, looming over her, easily a foot taller, probably two or three. "You did what you had to do in order to get free", he stated, those sharp eyes drilling all the way into Xi'an's spine and making her shudder. "Can you do what you must in order to win this battle?" Suddenly, he swung his fist towards her face.

Xi'an ducked underneath the blow, just barely avoiding it, and pulled back from the Egyptian, putting some distance between the two. Her eyes widened slightly and she swallowed, lips starting to tremble a little. She knew what to do, she knew *exactly* what to do...

He fired a bolt at her again, this time she blocked it with more ease, not trying to withstand the force of it all but instead just deflecting it away from her at an angle. He rushed her again, she pulled back a fist and focused, concentrated. A tingle ran up her spine, a little nausea growing in her stomach as he approached, and then he was within her range. She swung her fist.

POW!

The blow impacted squarely onto Apocalypse's jaw, sending him flying back across the silver platform the two battled on, right onto the other side where he crashed onto his back. Xi'an prayed. She prayed harder than she had about anything in months.

He got back up. Undaunted, Apocalypse stood straight, none the worse for wear. Eyes, so dark, so inhumanly deep, like they had seen all there was to see, stared right into Xi'an's soul again, and she felt like crying when he voiced the words, "Can you?" with a dead serious expression.

Xi'an stepped back as he rushed towards her again, until she was right at the edge of the silver disc and had nowhere to step back to anymore. Astral tears started running from her eyes down her cheeks as she fixed her eyes onto his chest. She summoned every single iota of power she had within her and focused it all with pinpoint accuracy right at the tip of her right fist. She pulled the fist back. Her body was tense all over, like a weapon, like a bow strung at the very end of the string's resilience and ready to fire. All she had to do was think, and her fist would streak forward, all her power in it. It would destroy almost anything on the astral plane.

She stared as he approached, the astral tears not subject to physical laws so they didn't obstruct her vision. A few moments, she had only a few moments. It was up to her. She could do it. She had to do it. He approached. Only another instant and he would be within range. She was focused, she was ready, she was primed. The astral plane hummed with the power concentrated on her fist. He smiled. He was within range. Now. She had to do it *now* --

***

"I can't!" Xi'an cried out, tears starting to stream down her cheeks as she stumbled back and crashed her behind onto the harsh paved square of Palenque. "I can't do it!" she wept, concealing her face in her hands. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, my friends!"

"That's okay", Chance frowned, mostly in disappointment that their plan to defeat Apocalypse hadn't worked. She stopped concentrating, no longer boosting Xi'an's telepathic powers. "I couldn't do anything about him either."

"No, you don't understand", Xi'an sobbed quietly, wiping her eyes. "I c-- could have s-- stopped him... He -- he *challenged* me. Dared me to do it --" She sniffled and hung her head. "He could...could withstand anything... No matter how hard I attacked him...he could take it... Except --" She paused to sniffle and sob for a moment before going on. "Except if I focused all my strength into one attack...but that -- would have killed him."

"What?" Chance blinked. "You chickened out because you didn't want to kill him?" She gaped at Xi'an for a moment, before her hands streaked forward, grabbing the front of Xi'an's outfit and yanked the taller woman up. "In case you've been watching Barney for the past fifteen minutes, that guy out there is trying to *kill* one of your friends, he said so himself! And you'll let him do that before doing the same to him? What kind of an idiot are you? It's gonna be your head on the platter if he does hurt anyone else!"

"Chance", a firm hand grabbed the Korean woman's wrist, twisting it just slightly to make her let go of Xi'an's front. "Leave her be", Dani said sharply, glaring at the shorter Angel for a moment before placing her other hand onto Xi'an's shoulder. "It's all right, Shan", she said softly. "Nobody blames you except idiots."

"She's right, Danielle", Xi'an sobbed amidst her tears. "If Apocalypse does hurt anyone else, it's my -- my fault for not having stopped him... I couldn't -- I *couldn't*! He's right -- I'm no hero! I shouldn't be here, I can't do what needs to be done! I'm so sorry!"

"It's all right", Dani murmured, putting her arms around Xi'an and pulling the other woman close, resting Xi'an's head on her chest. Chance opened her mouth, no doubt to say something venomous, but Dani gave an ice cold stare that quickly shut up the Korean woman before she could say anything. "You're more of a hero than any of us, Shan", Dani stroked the Vietnamese woman's raven-dark hair. "Being a hero isn't about how many bad guys you can beat. Some might think it is, but it isn't", she whispered soothingly. "It's about making the tough choices that tear you up inside instead of going for the easy way out. You made the right choice, Shan, and I'll back you up every step of the way on that. We'll find another way to drive Apocalypse off before he can kill Sam. Nobody, Sam the *least* would want you to sacrifice your beliefs and kill just to save him. Right?"

Xi'an took a few deep breaths, sniffling a few more times before giving a weak nod.

"Great", Dani smiled a little. "Now, you think you're up for helping out a little?"

"Yes --" Xi'an wiped her eyes with one more sniffle. "Yes, I --" she started, then looked around. "Where did Chance go?"

***

"By the blessed madonna, why won't you DIE?!" Roberto yelled as he drove his fist repeatedly into Apocalypse's face. The pounding could've torn apart battleships by now, especially with the heat he was concentrating onto his fists, enough to vaporize practically any substance save, probably, adamantium.

"Because", Apocalypse answered nonchalantly even while he took another mountain-splitting slam to his face, "I am immortal." Grabbing Roberto's wrist, he twisted it, forcing the Brazilian onto his knees. "You, on the other hand, are not, as I could easily prove. Don't aggravate forces beyond your conception, Roberto. I have been slaughtering arrogant young men exactly like yourself for longer than you can imagine."

"Gnnnh", Roberto gritted his teeth, solar-powered muscles straining but losing ground against Apocalypse's hold. "I'm...not impressed..." he grunted, too macho to acknowledge his disadvantage at the Egyptian's feet. "We've...beaten...people older than you..."

POW!

"Ain't that the truth!" Sam called out as he zoomed past, slamming into Apocalypse's jaw and knocking the ancient mutant away from Roberto. "You're not gonna talk us into surrendering, Apocalypse, so why don't you just take a hike!"

"What Sam said!" Amara shouted, swinging her arms to the sides and a chasm tore open in the ground between Apocalypse and Roberto, separating the two. Not that either of them couldn't fly across the chasm, but, well, it was the thought that counted.

"Hey, macho!" Chance shouted at Roberto as she came running in towards the Brazilian, waving an arm. "Go to town, I'm backing you up! Mop this guy up so we can go home!"

"Perfect, Chance. Thank you", Roberto smirked, eyes lighting up with seething power as he felt the burning energies in his veins double in scope. "You're *dead*, Apocalypse!" he shouted, leaping over the chasm and zooming towards the Egyptian for a high-speed tackle.

"Please", Apocalypse flicked his wrist, backhanding Roberto several hundred feet to the side, into a building that was demolished by the impact. "Self-confidence is crucial for one's prowess, Roberto. Being delusional is detrimental. And as for you -- Chance, I believe", he turned his scrutinizing eyes onto the Korean woman who was hesitantly backpedaling now that Roberto was disposed of. "A metapower?" Apocalypse asked. "Enhancement? Ranged, at that? Very dangerous. Very, very useful in the proper circumstances", he stated, suddenly raising an arm and blasting a bolt of energy towards Chance.

"NO!" Chance screamed, images flashing past her eyes, of Meltdown and Rictor broken and bloody in the crater -- just like she was going to be --

"No", Cannonball gritted his teeth, landing right in front of Chance, spreading his feet wide and bracing himself as he brought all of his blast field in front of him as a shield against the attack. "Don't worry, girl, Ah've got it --" little beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He'd taken blows from the Juggernaut, the Hulk, and the blast field had withstood all of that...but he knew Apocalypse fought with more than just his brawn -- nonetheless, Samuel Zachery Guthrie would let no one else get injured on his watch anymore if there was anything he could do -- he would never again fail to protect --

And then, he was gone.

The bolt struck his blast field, and his molecules discorporated. It took a fraction of a second, as a white light enveloped him and his blast field, and then faded out together with him, leaving behind no remnants of X-Force's leader.

Everyone was shocked. Eyes wide, everyone was silent. Except one.

"SAM!" Roberto shouted, burning his way straight thru the debris pinning him down instead of even bothering to shove it aside. Any tears that his eyes might have shed would have been instantly vaporized as the temperature of his skin rose to rival the surface of the sun, becoming incandescent white hot. "NO!"

"UNGH!" Apocalypse wheezed as Roberto zoomed to him faster than the eye could follow, tackling the Egyptian and the bundle of them crashing into the dark jungle together. Trees caught fire, within seconds a blazing inferno raging around the two struggling bodies.

"Shan! SHAN!" Dani shook the Vietnamese woman's shoulder to try and break her out of the shock she was in.

"D-- Dani --" Xi'an slowly pried her wet eyes away from the spot where she had last seen her fellow founding New Mutant. One of the first friends she had ever made after arriving in the United States. Still one of the very only friends she had ever, ever had. "Samuel -- he -- he --" Xi'an swallowed, staring into Dani's eyes. Her dizziness only started growing exponentially as the thought occurred to her that it could've just as easily been her -- so quickly, so suddenly -- Leong, Nga --

"I know", Dani gritted her teeth, forcing her emotions away. A battle was no place to cry. She'd do it later, if at all. "I know", she grimaced in pain, taking a deep, shuddering breath. "'Berto can't hold his own for long. Apocalypse is too smart. I need you. I need you *now*. Can I count on you, Shan?"

Xi'an inhaled and exhaled, deep and steady, two times. Then, she nodded. "Yes, Danielle. What do you need?"

***

"What gives you the right to decide who lives and who dies?" Roberto growled, rushing forward with blazing fists, one pulled back to administer a powerful blow to Apocalypse once he was a few steps closer.

"Experience", Apocalypse answered, timing his movements precisely, calmly grabbing Roberto's wrist as the fist streaked forward, and using its momentum to flip the Brazilian over him. "The same thing that allows me to defeat you. If you had enough of it to count, you wouldn't have foolishly abandoned tactics and signed your death warrant, Roberto."

"OOF!" Roberto grunted as he slammed onto his back behind Apocalypse, momentarily dizzied by the force of the blow. Before he could clear his head, he felt the Egyptian grab him by the back of his neck, and then he was hurtling thru the air.

CRASH!

"WHUNGH!" Roberto wheezed as a tree stopped his flight, smashing into splinters around him as it did so. The top of the tree teetered and crashed to the ground, only fanning the furious flames surrounding the battling pair. Forcing his eyes back open, Roberto regained his vision just in time to see Apocalypse leaping at him. He dodged to the side.

"NNFF!" Apocalypse gasped as Roberto's knee slammed into his gut, causing him to fall to his knees. The force of the blow could've blown apart a small skyscraper. Apocalypse was merely stunned for a fraction of a second. But a fraction of a second that, possibly to his pleasure, Roberto took advantage of.

WHAM!

Apocalypse made little or no sound as Roberto's fists smashed down on his head, pounding him down to the ground and only worsening his position. Position, but not condition. "Very good", he smiled, flat on his face on the ground, and suddenly struck out with his foot towards Roberto's abdomen.

"GNHH!" Roberto groaned as the kick slammed him back several dozen yards, crashing onto a boulder the size of a small car, cracking it with the impact. One hand went to his stomach, holding it in pain as he tried to recover from the blow.

"The Sleeping Horse strike", Apocalypse explained, standing up and walking calmly towards Roberto. "I learned it from a Persian master centuries ago, mere hours before his death."

"At your hands, no doubt", Roberto glared as he refocused himself, pushing himself off the boulder.

"How else would I prove that I finally was his superior?" Apocalypse smiled.

"Non-lethal combat?" Roberto wrinkled his nose in disgust at the Egyptian's attitude.

"Proves nothing", Apocalypse's eyes narrowed. "Look at yourself for proof, Roberto. You were fighting nowhere near as hard before I disposed of Samuel. The threat of *death* is what spurs mankind to its most awesome achievements. That is why I exist. To *provide* that threat. To make mankind the best it can be. When there is danger, people will be at their *best*."

"Or worst", Roberto noted, glaring at the ancient mutant from underneath his brows.

"The weak", Apocalypse waved his arm. "People un*fit* for battle. Un*fit* to *live*. Pollutants to the gene pool. Slowing down the development of our race."

"Sam wasn't unfit for battle", Roberto hissed thru gritted teeth.

Apocalypse remained quiet for a while at that. Not taken aback, but rather smiling. Smiling in a very infuriating manner that made Roberto's blood boil. "I know."

"RRARGH!" Roberto roared as he charged towards Apocalypse, the air around him turning into a fiery corona of rage.

Tensing the index and middle fingers of his right hand, Apocalypse pulled the hand back a few inches. Then, waited. Precisely four tenths of a second. Then, he thrust the fingers forward at lightning speed, striking home before Roberto even realized what was going on.

The Brazilian made no sound as he collapsed to the ground at Apocalypse's feet, like a puppet with his strings cut, the corona around him flickering and going out along with his consciousness.

"Threading The Needle strike", Apocalypse explained, inspecting the blood on his still straight finger, then looking to Roberto's chest where fresh, dark blood flowed from a little hole. "Mayan in origin, actually. A very appropriate way to end this battle, I thought, considering our loca--"

SHOOMMMMMM!

"ARRGH!" Apocalypse stumbled back in agony as a dagger aglow with nearly blinding pink energies suddenly appeared out of nowhere, embedded in his chest to the hilt.

Amara Aquilla stood right next to the spot where Apocalypse had been before he had stumbled back. Her legs spread a little, her posture was ready for anything, her eyes narrow and focused on the ancient mutant. Her blonde hair caught fire, not from the flames raging everywhere around her and the two men, but from her mutant heritage that she summoned forth, turning her body into molten stone.

The pink energies faded from the dagger. Outside the roaring fires, Shatterstar collapsed from exhaustion, slumping to the ground after having expended the last ounces of his force of will. Karma knelt down beside him, telepathically letting Chance know that she could stop boosting Shatterstar's mutant ability.

Dani had come up with the plan. Xi'an had relayed it and coordinated everyone. Chance had boosted Shatterstar, who had been too expended to use his powers one more time on his own. Shatterstar had empowered his dagger with the destructive energies that were his birthright. Amara had been the only one who had been able to deliver the dagger thru the flames into the midst of the battle. And Dani had maintained an illusion of Amara not being anywhere near the two fighting men, effectively giving the Nova Romani woman invisibility while she moved in.

"DIEEEE!" Amara screeched as she raised her arms and cut loose with a torrent of lava, casting it towards the wounded Apocalypse. The murderer. She'd make him suffer eternity in torment for what he did to Samuel --

Apocalypse grunted a little, teeth gritted together in obvious pain. He grabbed the hilt of the dagger and pulled it out, letting it fall to the ground with a slightly shaky hand. Then, a little smile came to his blue lips. With a flash of light, he was gone an instant before the lava blast hit him.

***

"Gimme a red."

Rotors beat the air, carrying the helicopter and its two passengers across the Mexican night sky. The pilot dug up a plain red pill from a container in his pocket, and started handing it over to the bare-torsoed Aryan man sitting beside him, a United States flag painted over his face.

"What --?" the pilot blinked, hand stopping in mid-give as he made out several trails of smoke wisping up towards the sky from their destination a few miles away. "Hang on, Nuke --" he started slowing down the helicopter, checking a few switches to make sure the weapons systems were armed.

Nuke was unwilling to wait, snatching the red pill from the pilot's hand and popping it between his lips. His eyes were focused on the smoke trails, a manic fire burning slowly in his mind. "Our boys..." he mumbled, standing up from his seat, checking that the high-tech rifle in his hands was in working order before yanking open the side door and peering down into the dark, black jungle. "Our boys..."

"No, Nuke, they're *not* our boys, they're Mexicans", the pilot sighed, the helicopter coming to a halt once it got over the ruins of Palenque. Smoke blew in thru the door Nuke was holding open. He coughed a little. Nuke's face didn't flinch despite all the smoke he was inhaling. The pilot pursed his lips, thinking intensely. Nuke wasn't paying attention to him. There were figures on the ground...

He leapt out.

"Nuke --!" the pilot's eyes snapped to the suddenly vacated doorway. He cursed under his breath, then adjusted the stick a little, pulling the helicopter back a little, away from above the ruins.

***

"A helicopter", Dani looked up at the sky, her eyes narrowing at the sound of rotor blades whupping. "Time", she called out to no one in particular.

"Around ten, Danielle", Xi'an answered, the last word catching in her throat, face tightened as she worked at staunching the bleeding from Roberto's chest. He had lost a lot of blood -- she'd fix it -- fix it all -- she wasn't going to lose anyone else today... Not another one of her first, best friends in this new country... It was her job -- her job to protect -- protect her friends -- like Leong and Nga -- she loved them -- it was her responsibility --

"Eastern Mexico is one hour behind American east coast", Amara added, eyes lingering on Xi'an tending to Roberto. "That makes it around nine local time." Was she worried about Roberto? Certainly. More than Dani was? More than Xi'an was? "Unless that was already factored in." There was no reply.

"Why?" Chance simply asked.

"Nuke", Dani took a step forward, slowly, as the helicopter hovered above them, cold silver moonlight glinting off the metal beast. "Bridge said he'd be arriving -- But it wasn't supposed to be until 10:30..."

"Who the hell's 'Nuke'?" Chance frowned.

Dani didn't answer right away. When she did, she pointed one finger at the sky, where a barely-visible figure was plummeting down towards the ground. "Him, I'll bet", she said, and started running towards the spot where she estimated he'd touch down. ((Xi'an, take care of 'Berto and Shatty. Amara, Chance, look out for her while I deal with this Nuke guy --)) She wasn't arrogant enough to think she didn't *need* backup. She just didn't want it. They were Roberto's people... An annoying little twerp, and a...what? A rival? Sometimes Dani got nervous about Roberto hanging around someone as well built as Amara. Okay, most times. She shouldn't anymore. It was over. She shouldn't think about that stuff anymore...

And sometimes Amara just plain reminded her of someone else, with those cold, practical, focused eyes... With that arrogant bearing...

Sometimes she reminded Dani of Selene...

And sometimes she wondered if people saw those very same qualities in her.

A flash of light, and the next moment, another blonde was running beside Dani towards the Temple of the Sun. "Chico and 'Boom Boom' are taken care of", Illyana announced, a silver flame erupting from her hand and taking on the shape of a sword in a few instants. "Need backup?"

Dani couldn't restrain a little smile. Somehow, that made it all feel like the old days. Even if Rictor and Tabitha hadn't been there in the 'old days'. "'Berto and Shatterstar are down", she shook her head, refusing the blonde's offer. "Get 'em out of here, too. When you've done that, I wouldn't mind a hand."

"Gotcha", Illyana summoned a stepping disk to swallow her up. "Where's Sambo?" she looked around. No response while the disk rose higher, spiriting the Russian woman away foot by foot. Then, she was gone. Dani didn't know if she had had an answer even if Illyana hadn't left.

The figure fell down from the dark sky. Cobblestone pavement cracked and dented as the large Aryan man hit it, rolled, and came up into a crouch. Rifle primed in his hands, little red numbers saying '000' glowing on its side, Nuke turned his head quickly from side to side, looking around for anything threatening. Nothing catching his eye, he finally eyed Dani. "The Charlies. Where're the Charlies?"

((Thanks heaps, Bridge...)) Dani gritted teeth mentally.

***

"No", Illyana's eyes widened.

"I fear so, Illyana", Xi'an said quietly, forcing her lip to stop quivering. "Samuel is...gone... We all saw what Apocalypse did to him..."

"No", Illyana gasped, her breathing turning shallow as she took a step or two back without even realizing it. Putting one hand against the wall of a building Roberto and Shatterstar had been dragged over to for cover, she tried to stay up despite the dizziness creeping up on her. Sam -- dead? She felt a little stinging in her eyes, a sign of tears coming. She never let them come. "Damn it!" she growled, summoning her anger to the surface so she'd forget to cry. "If I ever see that son of a bitch again, I'm going to teleport his head clean off! No, first I'll teleport his dick off, then his legs, then his arms --!"

Chance was staying out of the discussion. True, she hadn't known Sam too well. Maybe that was exactly why she didn't feel she had a place intruding on peoples' grief. Maybe she was ashamed Sam had been killed protecting *her*. Or maybe -- she just didn't like to talk or think about the issue of death at all.

"I know", Amara murmured, stepping up behind Illyana and placing a hand on the other blonde's shoulder. "We shall avenge Samuel, Illyana. I swear by Minerva, we'll --" She stopped in mid-sentence, her eyes widening and going glassy. "GKK!" a little sound came from her throat, a croak escaping her lungs.

Then, a N'garai stepped into full view from behind the corner of the building the Angels were by. Its claws had already sunk into Amara's back. Before anyone could react, its head darted forward, and its maw closed around the blonde's throat. Blood flew everywhere as it ripped and tore muscles and tissues.

"AMARA!" Xi'an screamed as the blonde gurgled, her eyes going blank as the N'garai twisted its head from side to side, shaking Amara around like a rag doll. "NO!" the Vietnamese Angel cried out, lashing out with a powerful psychic attack, angular 'Karma' auras taking shape around her head and the N'garai's.

The N'garai squealed and stumbled back, instinctively letting go of Amara, who fell to the dirt with a thud, blood pouring massively from her throat. Her eyes were gaping straight ahead with a shocked expression frozen on her face, and she didn't move on the ground. Finishing its stumble, the N'garai fell onto its back, twitched a few times, and then didn't move either.

"I killed it -- I killed it --" Xi'an's face was taken over by anguish. "Sacre mere, what have I done --?" she lamented. "I didn't mean to -- I just -- I panicked --" With that statement, she seemed to regain control over herself. Panic. No panic. Don't panic. "LOOK OUT!" she shouted, tackling Chance out of the way a split second before a long limb slashed where the Korean had stood.

The N'garai were coming literally out of the woodwork. One of them smashed straight thru the wall of the building the Angels were by, coming out from the inside, where it must have been hiding in wait. A pair leapt down from a nearby rooftop, their figures briefly blocking the moon and casting shadows over the Angels as they plummeted downwards. Half a dozen more were charging from the jungle.

"ILLYANA!" Xi'an shouted. "Get Roberto, Shatterstar and Amara out of here, NOW! Get them to medical attention, get them ANYWHERE but here!"

"Gotcha!" Illyana shouted, and spread her arms, starting to summon a series of stepping disks, but was interrupted by a mixture of a gurgle and a croak from Amara's direction. Illyana looked over at the Nova Romani, who was shaking her head angrily, but evidently couldn't talk. Gritting her teeth, Illyana was reluctant for a split second.

Then, the N'garai who had leapt off the rooftop landed.

And the ground exploded under them.

A volcanic pillar of fire shot towards the heavens, the two N'garai squealing wildly as they were thrown back by the force of the blast, the other one's chest left a green-black charred mess, and the other one losing a spindly arm that hurtled away thru the air in the opposite direction from the creature itself.

Amara's face was clearly torn by agony as she forced herself up onto her knees. Summoning strength from Mother Earth, she waved her arm towards Illyana, lips mouthing the word 'Go!', even though no sound came from her mauled throat. The next moment, she burst into flame. Pink flesh turned into swirling yellows, oranges and reds as she transmuted herself into molten stone. "GO, Illyana! NOW!" she shouted.

"Fine!" Illyana snapped, and with a thought, three stepping disks blazed into existence, the light disks swallowing up her and the two downed men. Within a second, they were gone.

"I'll cover you!" Amara called out towards Karma and Chance. "Fall back towards Dani! She'll know what these things are and what to do!" A few quick running steps took the volcanic woman right between her two fellow Angels and the pack of N'garai charging them from the jungle.

"Working on it --!" Xi'an replied, the 'Karma' aura taking form around her head again as she possessed the N'garai she had barely managed to save Chance from. Using it as her puppet, she pitted it against another N'garai, the one that had come out of the building thru the wall. The two creatures started wildly tearing and flailing at each other, giving Xi'an the opportunity to grab Chance's wrist and yank the shorter woman along as she started running towards the direction she had seen Dani disappear in. "Come on, Chance!" Some people might've been offended by the presumption to defer to Dani. Xi'an wasn't. Deputy leader of the Fallen Angels she might be, when Roberto wasn't available, but she didn't particularly relish the position. And she knew more than well enough that Dani was so much better a leader than she could ever be herself that it wasn't even funny.

"Taste the forge of Vulcan, Tartarus-spawn!" Amara hissed as she cast a lava blast towards the charging N'garai. It hit one of the pack clean center and scorched the side of another, bringing out a hideous squeal as the former creature was flung back dozens of feet by the impact of the molten stone.

The leaders of the pack were closing in. Amara spread her arms. The ground shook and rumbled. A chasm ripped open in the ground between her and the N'garai. The lead N'garai tried to stop, skidding and stumbling, but too late. It crossed the edge, and plummeted into the deep, dark chasm. No sounds signified hitting the bottom. The next one went for another tactic. It tried leaping over the chasm. Too short. Just barely, it managed to grab a desperate hold of the edge on the other side before falling into the chasm. Strong limbs hauled it upwards, getting its waist up to ground level.

Amara smiled.

THOOM!

The N'garai let out a wild squeal of agony as the chasm slammed closed while its lower half was still there. The next moment, fire erupted upwards from the minute crack in the ground, the only sign that the chasm had ever been there. The N'garai twisted and flailed desperately, but couldn't get anywhere away. Slowly, it started charbroiling to death. Amara turned her attention to the remaining ones.

Just in time. With the chasm closed, they weren't prevented from reaching her anymore. One of them was already within reach, and leapt at her. Amara grunted, receiving the tackle of the large, wiry creature. The pair crashed to the ground, Amara was left disadvantaged on the bottom. The creature squealed in triumph and raised one arm, claws glinting in the moonlight. It struck.

The ground absorbed Amara into itself from underneath the N'garai. She melted into it, and the creature's claws struck nothing but dirt. It threw its head back and squealed in frustration, its prey escaped. Its two comrades joined into the squealing. So did other squeals, from further away.

***

"We're here on SHIELD's authority", Dani flashed her old SHIELD badge at Nuke. It had expired by now, but she suspected anyone with eyes as manic as Nuke's wouldn't bother to look at the badge in any detail. She was right. "We're in charge. We need help. Any problems with that?"

Nuke stared at Dani for a moment. Then another, and another, and another. Dani felt her heartbeat accelerating in nervousness. The longer it took, the more certain she became of the fact that this was no Captain America. Not even a USAgent. This guy was a psycho. A basket case. "Well?" Dani prompted, hoping that this guy was enough of an order-follower that exerting authority would make him fall in line.

"Who", Nuke clicked his rifle, "do I kill?"

"Dani! Dani!" Xi'an called out from the distance, waving an arm as she and Chance ran towards Dani and Nuke. She waited until they reached the pair, then continued, slightly out of breath. "We were attacked by monsters of some kind -- they were big, about ten feet tall -- long arms and legs -- mostly black --"

"The N'garai", Dani nodded seriously. "That's what we're here to take care of. *There's* your Charlies", she glanced over towards Nuke.

"'Charlies'?" Xi'an's eyes narrowed.

((*Shit*)), Dani kicked herself mentally.

"This girl looks like one too", Nuke narrowed his eyes, glaring at Xi'an. "She's probably working for 'em."

Xi'an's lips pulled back, revealing teeth as she felt anger towards the flag-faced man starting to rise within her. "In case you had not noticed, your undesired intervention in my country ended long ago."

"Undesired my ass!" Nuke rumbled. "We're protecting you from the stinking commies!"

"I shower every day", a flash of light signified the appearance of a stepping disk that deposited Illyana next to Dani. "Capitalist pig. Imperialist dog", she smiled and then paused a moment, rubbing her chin thoughtfully with the hand that wasn't holding Shatterstar's double-bladed sword. "Jingoist elephant? Would that work? Coming up with more than those two first ones is hard. Who's the beefcake, Dani?"

"Don't ask..." Dani rubbed her temples with a sigh.

"You were the ones who insisted on waging your war against the Soviets in *my homeland*!" Xi'an jabbed a finger at Nuke's chest. "You had no right to use *my country* for *your wars*."

"So you'd rather work for the pinko commie bastards than live free!" Nuke snapped.

"Capitalist dog", Illyana interjected.

"Shut up!" Nuke hissed at Illyana. "You don't know anything about how many of my friends died to defend *her*", he pointed at Xi'an, "people!"

"You don't know how many of *my* friends died fleeing *our home* because you made it a place we couldn't live in anymore!" Xi'an gritted her teeth. She had thought she had no tears left anymore, but they surprised her and started coming anyway.

"We didn't start it", Nuke narrowed his eyes. "The commies started it by giving the gooks weapons so they could start killing our boys --"

"I don't like that word --" Xi'an's voice started rising.

"Gooks gooks gooks gooks", Nuke taunted.

"SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP ALREADY!" Dani yelled. "CAN'T YOU FUCKING IDIOTS PUT THIS FUCKING THING IN THE PAST? IT'S BEEN FUCKING YEARS SINCE THE FUCKING WAR! CAN'T YOU FUCKING FOR-FUCKING-*GET* ABOUT IT ALREADY? WE'VE GOT MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT RIGHT NOW THAN THE FUCKING VIETNAM WAR!"

Everyone went quiet.

"Such as the fact", Amara said calmly as she emerged from the ground like the lady of the proverbial lake, breaking the surface and rising higher until her feet stood on the ground, "that we are all surrounded by roughly two dozen of those creatures that attacked us earlier."

Dani looked around. Amara's assessment was pretty much correct. All around, in almost every direction, the N'garai were lurking in the shadows, behind building corners, looming at the edges of rooftops, behind little ridges or constructions. They were ready, and just waiting for something. What it was, Dani didn't know. But she knew it wouldn't be a long wait. "&$%."

"Want me to 'port us all away, Dani?" Illyana asked.

"No", Dani shook her head quickly. "We *have* to deal with them. We can't leave them here, they'd slaughter any civilians in the area. We're going to take them out, one way or another. Amara! Surround us with a ring of fire -- if we're lucky, that'll keep them off for a few seconds to give us time to think!"

"Consider it done, Dani!" Amara answered. Her eyes flickered with flames, and the next moment, flames burst forth from the ground as well, all around the group, obscuring the N'garai from their sight and vice versa. "What now?" she looked towards the Cheyenne.

Dani's eyes narrowed in thought.

"SELVES have a cunning plan!" Douglock announced as he flew up from the Hall of Life and Death.

***

The ring of fire died down, flames quenching and fading away.

"Fall back!" Xi'an shouted, holding her bleeding side where her green outfit was drenched with rusty dark blood, and using her free arm to point in the direction of the Hall of Life and Death. "Get down there, find some cover!" She didn't wait herself, starting to run in the direction she had indicated, wincing with each step as pain jabbed at her from her side and more blood dripped to the ground.

"RRARGH!" Nuke yelled, pulling down the trigger of his rifle and taking rapid steps backwards in the same direction as Xi'an, the recoil from the rifle helping him on his way.

BRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKA

The N'garai squealed as the bullets started tearing into them, more out of surprise than actual damage. Small amounts of green-black goo sprayed into the air from the spots where the large creatures were hit, and they took a few steps backwards, eyeing the fleeing pack of humans. For a few seconds. Then, they charged.

"You okay?" Illyana asked a little breathlessly, running beside Xi'an and not looking back over her shoulder towards the N'garai horde that was doubtless not far behind them. A little grimace came to her face as she glanced at the other woman's injury. "Can you make it, do you think?"

"I must", Xi'an's face tightened in exertion to hold the pain away. Quickly, she glanced back at Nuke as the man backed away from the N'garai's onslaught, slowing them down to buy the Angels time... "Amara! Get us a way down there!"

"Done!" Amara slowed down a bit, letting Xi'an and Illyana get a little ahead of her. She spread her arms, her eyes flared, and part of the closest wall of the Hall of Life and Death rumbled, then collapsed into a rocky slope leading down from ground level to the floor of the hall below. Then, she whirled around and swung an arm, a volcano exploding into life between Nuke and the N'garai instants before the latter's charge reached the former, getting the creatures to back off for a few seconds. "Come!" she shouted to the super-soldier.

"Betty's got something to tell these bastards first --" Nuke gritted teeth, flicking a switch on the rifle.

PFAMMM

A rocket streaked out from the weapon, slamming into the torso of the closest N'garai with a fireball and a shockwave. A greenish mess sprayed into the air as the N'garai hurtled back a dozen feet and then crashed onto its back. Another of its kin grabbed it and threw it aside rather than step over it.

"COME!" Amara shouted, louder, as she backed away towards the slope leading down.

"And you --" Nuke snarled, glaring at the N'garai and squeezing Betty's trigger down, resuming the relentless and reckless discharging of bullets. The N'garai squealed as bullets tore off chunks, but they kept advancing, steadily, faster by the second, getting their momentum up to a running charge --

***

"That way!" Marrow circled the pool of dark red blood at the center of the Hall of Life and Death, pointing with a finger in the direction of the hallway exit on one end of the Hall. She watched Xi'an and Illyana stumble down the rocky slope from the ground level above. "Move your lazy upworlder butts --"

"Blow me", Illyana replied off-handedly, putting one arm around Xi'an to support the other woman. Together, the pair of them stumbled towards the looming dark mouth of the hallway. "C'mon c'mon, Shan..." Illyana mumbled with a focused frown.

"NRRH!" Nuke grunted, flying over the edge from up above as one of the N'garai tackled him, the bundle of them silhouetted and barely visible against the dark night sky as they plummeted thru the air towards the cold stone floor of the Hall. Nuke was on the bottom, and grunted as they crashed down, receiving the impact and stunned for a second. The N'garai's long fingers reached for his throat to tear it out --

"DIE!" Marrow screamed furiously as she leapt in, plunging the three bone claws anchored to the back of her hand right into the side of the N'garai's throat. "DIE DIE DIE!" she hissed with psychotic eyes, ramming the dagger in her other hand into the creatures eyesocket time and time again. It wasn't enough. The N'garai twisted and squealed in pain and fury, managing to grab Marrow's face in its long fingers, tear, rip, hold on, shake. The pair squealed and screamed in cacophony, red and green bodily fluids mixing into black --

BRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKA

The back of the N'garai's head exploded as Nuke stuffed Betty into its maw and squeezed the trigger down. The ten-foot monstrosity collapsed onto the super-soldier and he had to grunt and heave, straining his muscles to kick himself away from underneath it.

"GET MOVING!" Amara shouted from up above, sighting a pack of N'garai leaping down into the Hall from the edge. A wave of her arm, and the stone floor where they would land turned into a bubbling pool of lava. The N'garai splashed into the molten stone with hideous screams lasting less than a second before they disappeared under the surface. Small victory. Amara's eyes turned to more of the creatures, everywhere, rushing towards the Hall -- "I can't hold them back, there's too many --!"

"Let's go! Let's go!" Illyana shouted, leaping into the hallway with Shatterstar's double-bladed sword in her other hand, held defensively in front of her, ready for anything. Her other hand was holding Xi'an's wrist, pulling the dark-haired woman behind her as they vanished into the darkness.

Nuke was not too partial to the whole plan, but as the floor in every direction around him and Marrow turned to lava for over a dozen feet, except for a narrow path leading straight to the hallway, he found he had little choice. He squinted his eyes a little at the flaming figure up above who had to be responsible, though. He didn't like being herded.

"GO!" Amara yelled, leaping off the edge and diving down towards a pool of lava. She disappeared into it like a champion diver, and didn't return into sight.

"Move!" Marrow growled, shoving Nuke towards the hallway roughly.

"Shut up", Nuke snarled back. "I don't like being told what to do!"

"Fine!" Marrow snapped, and started towards the hallway herself. "Stay here and die! See if I care, stupid-stupid arrogant upworlder filth! Less of you means more space for my kind!" she hissed, and leapt into the hallway, disappearing from sight.

Nuke glared into the darkness for a moment or two. Then, he looked around the Hall, N'garai swarming down over the edge, pausing cautiously down on the floor at the lava ditches separating them from their prey and the hallway that the fleshy things were escaping into. Nuke snorted, spun around and squeezed down Betty's trigger. A rain of bullets lashed out, blowing off chunks of the N'garai and getting their anger nice and hot. Then, he turned and ran into the hallway.

Amara melted her way up thru the stone floor scant seconds after Nuke had disappeared from view. She watched the N'garai. They watched her. The lava ditches bubbled in-between the two opposing sides. Then, she turned, and dashed into the darkness. A thought, timed perfectly for the exact moment when she left the Hall and entered the hallway, and the lava started rapidly cooling back into stone. Amara smiled and was gone.

The N'garai waited, watching the stone stop glowing and starting to dull into a cracked black. A few of them congregated around the drops of blood Xi'an had shed onto the floor in her flight. Their sharp nails scratched and scraped at the dark wetness from the stones, craving for more. Hesitantly, one of them ventured onto the cooled, blackened surfaces and discovered it could walk on them. Its comrades looked towards it, their eyes going back and forth between the daring N'garai and the black floor at its feet. The next moment, the creatures started lumbering towards the hallway, their large bulks filing into it one by one. A minute or two, and they were all gone. Everything was quiet once more.

The air wavered on the opposite end of the Hall. Nobody had appeared to be there, but Dani now let the illusion fade, revealing herself, Douglock, Chance, and the two reporters, Neal Conan and Manoli Wetherell.

Other illusions flickered and faded out as well. The pool at the center of the Hall was filled to the brim with red blood one moment. The next, it was empty. A few N'garai corpses came into view as well, converted to techno-organic circuitry and inert, drained of energy. Finally, the exit the Angels and the N'garai had used to get out of the Hall wasn't a hallway anymore. It was a giant circle, over a dozen feet in diameter, also of techno-organic circuitry. Inside the circle, the beginnings of a dark, dank cavern system could be seen.

"Go", Dani snapped her eyes to Douglock.

Instantly, Douglock flew across the hall, landing next to the circle and touching its side. The next moment, an iris-shutter-like effect of circuitry started growing from the inner edges of the circle, quickly closing the circle up into a solid disk. "N'garai lock -- closed", Douglock looked across the hall towards Dani. He grabbed the side of the huge disk, twice his height, and with a grunt, his Technarch muscles strained and raised the disk off the stone floor, revealing the hallway behind it. "Where do you want it?"

"Anywhere it'll be safe", Dani said, and swallowed a little. "The one thing we can't do -- is risk it opening up again." She stared at the disk, eyes slightly widened and lungs tense. "Shan...come back..." she murmured, feeling cold sweat break thru her skin.

***

"They followed, all right", Amara said grimly as she emerged from a shimmering red energy portal into a dark cavern system right on the heels of Xi'an, Illyana, Marrow and Nuke. "You were correct, Xi'an. They are like piranhas -- they can't resist the lure of fresh blood. Fresh prey."

"I saw it in their minds", Xi'an grunted as she finished administering a very quick field dressing onto herself, bandages hurriedly wrapped around her waist and starting to staunch the bleeding. "It's an overwhelming urge for them -- much like sex is for men."

"I didn't know you had a sense of humor", Illyana grinned, wiping off Xi'an's blood from the blade-tips of the sword in her hand, onto the thigh of her costume.

"I don't", Xi'an gave an almost undetectably small hint of a smile. Tightening the bandages around her waist and making sure they were securely in place, she pointed down a dark cavern tunnel, a foot or two of some grimy water or other foul liquid covering the floor there, just like in the area they were in now. "We have to move. Fast. Amara, you made sure they can follow us?"

"I did", Amara nodded. "I'd estimate we have maybe thirty seconds."

"Take point", Xi'an said quickly. "Go! Take us wherever the tunnel goes, it doesn't matter where, as long as we get away from here. Nuke, go behind her --"

"I don't take gook orders --" Nuke's eyes narrowed.

"Fine!" Xi'an grinded her teeth together in frustration. "We can't afford to be separated, we don't have the time for this --" her eyes narrowed, the 'Karma' aura springing to life around her head and Nuke's. His body went rigid, eyes blank. Xi'an's eyes widened as she felt herself falling into a bottomless pit of dark madness.

***

The door to the 'Harry's Hideaway' tavern slammed open and an oriental man in a military grunt's uniform stood in the doorway. "Nobody move, this estabilishment has been surrounded!" he stated with an icy voice, aiming a rifle threateningly at the clientele. The few dozen patrons started screaming as he moved inside, followed by a good dozen more soldiers, all brandishing rifles.

It took a few minutes to subdue the crowd. Rifle butts smashed to faces, to backs of heads, to stomachs. No shots were fired. Yet.

Xi'an Coy Manh hung back, feeling a little dizziness in her head from the rapid breathing. Her lips were dry as her lungs pumped air back and forth, back and forth. She squeezed the rifle in her hands tighter, looking around nervously. She was armed, she could get shot by one of the rebels if she let her guard down for a single moment... She had seen her brother get cocky and arrogant treating the prisoners, thinking they had nothing up their sleeve, and the next thing he knew, one of them stabbed a dagger into his heart... Poor Tran... He had been still so young... *She* was still young... She didn't want to die --

"Daydreaming, Manh?" she heard a voice behind her, and gasped, turning towards it.

"N-- no, sir", Xi'an swallowed as she replied to the older man, the one in charge of this military expedition.

"Why are you not helping your comrades control the prisoners?" he asked, eyes drilling into hers. He took a cigarette from a pack, lit it, and took a deep drag while staring at her.

"Th-- they have them under control, sir..."

"Indeed?" the captain asked, and then turned his eyes onto a doorway labeled 'staff only'. A pair of soldiers slammed it open from the other side, coming thru it and dragging behind them an unconscious blond man, his Aryan features all but obscured by blood and bruises. "And who is this?" he asked the two soldiers.

"A southern rebel, sir", one of the soldiers answered. "He tried to escape thru the kitchen window. We caught him just in time."

"He almost escaped?" the captain asked, calmly, blowing a little circle of smoke.

"Almost, sir", the other soldier answered, "but did not."

"We can not afford 'almost'", the captain's features turned cold. "It would only take one rebel to alert the others, and we would be set up for an ambush on our way back to New York. *One* escaped rebel", he said sharply, "can mean *all* our deaths. I thought you said they had them under control, Manh", he spoke thru clenched teeth, eyes remaining on the rebel instead of going to the woman he was addressing.

"I thought they did, sir --" Xi'an grimaced, watching the beaten and bloody man for only a few moments before she had to avert her eyes.

"Did you?" the captain asked. "Did you *think*?" He stared at Xi'an for a few heartbeats, then, without waiting for an answer, turned his attention to the rebel. Taking the man's chin in his fingers, he propped the blond's head back, forcing him to look up. "You will be taken to New York, where we will get all the information we want out of you", he said sharply, determinedly.

The rebel slowly opened his eyes, barely seeing thru all the sticky and dried blood gluing his eyelashes together. He didn't say anything, just watched the captain a moment or two, and then spat at him.

Wrinkling his nose, the captain watched the spit for a while. Then, he calmly removed a pistol from its holster at his hip. Xi'an's eyes widened and she tensed up. No --

WHACK!

Accompanied by a snarl from the captain's lips, the pistol whipped across the rebel's face. Once. Twice. Thrice. Then, the cool metal muzzle was placed against the blond's forehead. "Never do that again", the captain hissed.

"Get the fuck out of my country", the blond managed to muster a vicious growl.

"I'd love nothing more, my dear boy", the captain answered, "but, unfortunately, I have no choice where my superiors station me. If I did, do you seriously think I'd be in this pathetic excuse of a country?"

"I'm an American, dammit! This is my country! You don't belong here! This is *my home*! If anyone's gonna hold anyone prisoner here, *I'm* going to hold *you*!"

"Alas", the captain took another drag from the cigarette, pulling back the hammer of the pistol. "*I* hold the *gun*. Makes all the difference, doesn't it?"

"You have no right to hold that gun."

"Those rights were granted upon the Vietnamese Army by President Gore when he asked for our help."

"Bush is the president of the United States."

"So you say. It's hardly my fault if you fail to recognize your own government, American. That *is*, after all, why you are called 'rebels'."

"This is United States business. Our internal affair. Meddlers are not wanted."

"Unless they support your side, like the resources the Chinese government provides."

"We wouldn't need their help if you weren't here in the first place."

"Well, we're not going to find out if that is true or not, since we are not going to pull back and risk your people overrunning the North." The captain released the hammer back into place, and holstered the pistol. "Manh."

"Yes, sir?" Xi'an spoke up.

"Take the prisoner to the truck outside and secure him. We will be leaving in fifteen minutes."

"Yes, sir." Xi'an nodded, grabbing the rebel's wrist and pulling him up, starting to tug him out of the tavern and towards the truck outside.

Once she was out of the building, the captain looked to the two soldiers who had captured the rebel in the first place. "Follow them", he said. "If she lets him escape -- shoot her. We can *not* have breaking ranks. Only wound him. *He* has valuable information."

"Yes, sir!"

The captain sighed, and walked quietly towards the bar as the two soldiers headed out. He sat down on a stool, and waited. Maybe two minutes passed. Then, he heard gunfire. A few rifle bursts, and then it was all over. Closing his eyes, he sighed and shook his head. "Young people. No respect for authority."

Outside, Southern Intelligence Agent Simpson was smashed to the ground with a rifle butt. He grunted as mud, still wet from the rain a few hours ago, filled his mouth. Gooey, like something running down the back of his head, but less warm. His leg stung and hurt from the bleeding bullet wound that had taken away his ability to escape. He felt dizzier and dizzier by the heartbeat, and slowly his vision started fading to black. The last thing he saw before blacking out was the Vietnamese girl lying in the mud beside him, a trail of blood flowing from the corner of her mouth to the mud. A last twinkle of life lingered in her eyes for a few instants as his eyes met hers. Then, it faded, along with his vision.

***

Xi'an Coy Manh gasped and recoiled as the 'Karma' auras faded around her head and Nuke's, and she bumped back against a slimy wall, letting out a little, "AH!" cry of surprise. She wasn't completely sure which scared her more, the scenario lingering in her thoughts from the mindlink, or the reality surrounding her. But unless she made sure to attend to the latter, she wouldn't have very long to think of the former.

"LET'S GO!" Illyana screeched, grabbing Xi'an's arm and yanking on it hard as she ran off after Amara, whose glowing magma form was lighting the way into one of the dark, wet-floored caverns.

"Go", Nuke snapped to Marrow, who was still waiting and not moving, watching the super-soldier cautiously. His eyes were a little less manic, but Sarah wasn't completely sure if that was a good thing. "I said GO!" Nuke shouted, gritting his teeth and then, as there was a sound, whirling towards the shimmering portal close by, his movements almost synchronized with Marrow's who did the same thing. "GOOOO!" he yelled, squeezing down Betty's trigger.

BRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKABRAKA

The N'garai rushing in thru the portal squealed and stumbled to the side in surprise, bullets tearing into it, one after another as the glowing red counter on Betty's side climbed rapidly from 066 to 087 with each piece of metal spat out. Another N'garai emerged from the portal. And a third. Nuke kept the trigger squeezed down, but the N'garai kept coming thru the portal faster than he could gun them back. And even the ones that he managed to gun back didn't go down. His face tightened, he backed away steadily as the counter climbed higher by the second...

***

"ARRRRGH!"

Amara, Xi'an and Illyana all glanced over their respective shoulders towards the sound, down the tunnel back in the direction they had come from. "It was human", Amara noted seriously.

"They didn't come", Xi'an's face tightened as she noted there wasn't a Marrow or Nuke anywhere in sight.

"You're boss, Shan", Illyana looked towards the dark-haired woman with a raised eyebrow. "Your call."

Xi'an's throat tightened, and she took a deep breath, turning fully back towards the direction of the sound. "Dani told me that being a hero is making the tough choices", she said quietly. "Even when they tear you up inside. Especially when they tear you up inside. I suppose that's the responsibility one has to own up to when being a leader." A little pause, her heart beat faster. "I am not a leader. I am not a hero. And I am not Dani, I am not a warrior. In a few years, I will be a doctor. I don't give up on lives. I save them."

"At the cost of your own?" Illyana asked, curiously.

Xi'an looked towards the blonde, her eyes widening a little. Leong and Nga --

She was being slowed down by hesitation again.

Apocalypse had been right.

***

"ARGH!" Nuke cried out as a N'garai's sweeping arm slashed across his broad, stone-firm chest. Small amounts of blood flew into the air from the lacerations of the sharp nails, but his plastic-reinforced skin saved him from being gutted like a fish. Not, however, from being flung back into a wall, crashing to it and having the wind knocked out of him.

"We're going to die", Marrow said matter-of-factly, not seeming too bothered by the statement as she tackled a N'garai leaping towards Nuke, veering it off-course and crashing to a wall with it. She stayed on top of it, plunging a bone dagger into its head again and again and again, green-black ooze flying everywhere as she roared with adrenaline.

And then, she roared with pain, as another N'garai slashed her side open, knocking her off its downed comrade. Marrow rolled with the momentum of the blow, but it still left her side bleeding like a slashed throat. For less than two seconds, before her superhuman cardiovascular system kicked in, sealing blood vessels around the mauled area, preventing blood loss, rerouting and rearranging circulation to still-functional tissues and accelerating blood production. One of the very last things Marrow would die of was hemorrhaging. She hissed and leaped aside as the N'garai slashed its long arm towards her prone form, instead just spraying into the air a handful of filthy water.

"At least we'll die like Americans", Nuke snarled as Betty ran out of ammunition, clicking empty. He yanked a large metal blade with a serrated edge from his boot, holding it up as a trio of N'garai rushed towards him. "We don't run away like cowards. We're not pushed around. We're bad, we're *tough*, we're *America*, we'll show these motherfuckers what it means to mess with our boys..."

"I couldn't give a &%$ about your stupid countries", Marrow growled, moving over to stand back-to-back with Nuke, "but I like the sentiment. Let's see how many of these uglies we can take with us."

***

"C'mon, guys..." Dani gritted her teeth, watching the N'garai lock impatiently.

***

"ARRGH!" Marrow cried out as one N'garai slash tore her chest open, sending her stumbling away from Nuke, gasping in agony. She would only have needed a few fractions of a second to be able to dodge again, but didn't get even that much as another N'garai grabbed her arm and slammed her against a wall. She let out no sound as she hit the wall, nor when the N'garai then threw her down onto the waters with a massive splash. She moved no more.

"This is exactly what you fucks always think", Nuke hissed, ducking under a N'garai's arm and plunging his blade into its chest, ripping and tearing the creature's torso open violently. "That you can attack any of our allies and we'll just stand by and not do nothing because we're afraid of fighting! Well, &%$ that! We're the most powerful country in the world! *You* should be afraid of us fighting!" he yelled, and then winced with a, "UNGH!" A flailing N'garai limb smashed to the back of his head like a piledriver and he splashed face-down onto the dark waters.

The N'garai started swarming around the two fallen figures, but were interrupted by a flickering silvery light being cast from the other side of the cavern. The N'garai looked up towards the three figures standing at the entrance of one of the tunnels.

"FOR THE HONOR -- OF *GRAYSKULL*!" Illyana Rasputin shouted, bringing up her left hand that wielded a sword-shaped silver flame, to meet her right hand, held aloft, that wielded Shatterstar's double-bladed sword. As her left hand joined the right one in gripping the double-blade's hilt firmly, the silver flames spread all over the metal sword, ensheathing it and dancing wildly along its surface. At the same moment, little spots of silver appeared over Illyana's black and white costume, spreading and growing quickly, flowing over her to cover her up in silver armor. "I AMMM SHEEEEE-RAAAAA!"

"I cannot sense the soul of Mother Earth here", Amara said, eyes focused seriously on the N'garai. "I only have a limited amount of energy at my call."

"We'll have to make do", Xi'an nodded, taking a step forward from between the two blondes. "Angels --"

"Yes, Charlie?" Illyana smirked.

((That is not funny, Illyana)), Xi'an sent her thoughts privately to the Russian before speaking out loud. "-- get them. Amara, you're point. I'll back you up. Illyana, you know what to do."

"Understood", Amara stepped in front of Xi'an as the N'garai started up their charge, rushing towards the trio from the other side of the cavern. "There is a limit to what I can do in this place. The earth does not answer me. That will not stop me." With that, torrents of lava spouted from her arms, hitting the water and instantly starting to turn it to steam. Hot water vapor billowed up and started filling the cavern, rapidly making it humid like a sauna, even as the lava deposits grew and became large piles of stone that blocked the N'garai's charge except for a small, narrow corridor left open. "Xi'an?"

The Vietnamese woman didn't need to be told what Amara was asking for. Using her telepathy to pinpoint the N'garai despite the steam everywhere reducing visibility to a few feet at best, she relayed that information to Amara and Illyana, helping the two stay apace of the creatures' movements despite being effectively blinded.

Amara walked calmly into the 'corridor' between the two cooling lava mounds. Xi'an's telepathy relayed her the information that there was a N'garai only about a dozen feet ahead of her, feeling its way thru the corridor. Amara raised her arm, and waited until the N'garai's head was less than a foot from her fist. Then, a splash of lava drenched the creature's head.

It squealed, thrashed, sizzled and smelled like something left in the frying pan for two hours too long. Amara lowered her arm a little, and another blast of lava, bright hot, shot straight thru the N'garai's torso. It collapsed onto the waters with a splash, the lava around its head making a fizzy sound as it cooled in the water, forming a rock cocoon around the N'garai's head.

Then, she reacted too slowly to the next one, rushing in along the corridor and leaping straight at her with a wild, hungry squeal. She splashed down into the waters under the N'garai, the waters starting to turn to steam rapidly upon contact with her body as she struggled underneath the large creature.

"ARGH!" Amara cried out as the N'garai chomped its maw onto her left shoulder to rip it apart like paper. Instead, it squealed and recoiled as its mouth charred, its teeth started melting at contact. Amara seized the moment to regain initiative, whipping her right fist across the creature's face and knocking it back off her. "You dare touch the daughter of the first senator of Nova Roma?" she hissed, and then leapt forward, hands reaching for the N'garai's throat.

It grabbed her in mid-leap, and smashed her against one of the lava mounds that bounded the corridor. Snarling and hissing, it plunged its claws into Amara's magma form despite the pain, the blonde's scream of agony perhaps spurring it on.

Instead of giving up, Amara brought her feet up around the N'garai's throat, focusing as much of her heat energy in them as she could. It squealed and reared back, letting go of Amara, pulling away instants before she burned her way thru its neck and severed its head. She fell onto her behind into the waters with a splash, while the N'garai grasped at its badly damaged throat, stumbling here and there.

Another one finished the N'garai's pain by slashing its side open and stepping over it. Amara could make out the new one's silhouette in the thick steam, and she was sure it could see her glow as well. Another one rushed up right behind it. She growled and fired a lava blast towards the pair, feeling the power stored in her body start to run low. The blast hit the lead N'garai in the shoulder and it squealed in pain, but the second one managed to avoid the blast despite the corridor's narrow confines. Pushing its comrade aside, it rushed forward towards Amara. She grimaced as she tried another lava blast and felt it fizzle out powerlessly.

Then, it stopped in mid-stride, and turned around towards its wounded comrade. A few slashes with its healthy limbs, and the lava-blasted N'garai was a lifeless, mangled husk lying in the waters, dripping fluids. More N'garai came up the corridor, and the still-up N'garai tore into them, manic squealing and slashing echoing in the cavern.

((Time to go, Amara)), Xi'an spoke to the blonde's mind while maintaining her hold on the N'garai to block the pass. ((Fall back, we are leaving --))

Amara whirled around instantly, starting to run down the corridor back towards Xi'an and Illyana. She felt her left shoulder aching and hurting. In her magma form she had no internal organs which is why she wasn't as fragile and easily killed as a human, but she could still be damaged...and she needed Mother Earth to heal her injuries. Mother Earth wasn't here. "I'm ready!" she called out towards her two comrades as she saw their silhouettes in the steam.

"Go! Go!" Illyana motioned towards a large shimmering white disk on the cavern wall. "I've 'ported Beefcake and Bitch already, your turn now. I'll come last, just in case -- go!"

Xi'an waited for Amara to rush into the disc, and then followed the blonde. Illyana smirked and stepped in front of the disc. Then, she turned towards the corridor, and waited, making a few gestures. It took less than ten heartbeats until she saw the first N'garai emerging from it. It squealed and leapt at her.

SPLAT!

The N'garai hit an invisible wall in midair and slumped down to the waters, momentarily stunned by the impact. Several of its kin joined in, clawing and slashing at the invisible wall surrounding Illyana and the disc on all sides. They couldn't get thru.

"Suckers", Illyana grinned, and then started dancing, swaying her hips and moving her body to some rhythm that could be heard only in her head. Then, she started singing while Moonwalking back towards the disc.

o/~ Fighting evil by moonlight Winning love by daylight With the Sailor Scouts to help fight She is the one named Sailor Moon! She is the one named Sailor Moon! She is the one! Sailor Moon! o/~

With that, she backed into the disc of shimmering light and disappeared into it. She was gone, and it winked out of existence.

***

"Bridge is going to be so pissed", Dani looked around the leveled Palenque while slowly walking along the ruins. With a sigh, she shook her head. "I don't know if I'm much happier, but at least I know it wasn't our fault. Or maybe it was. Maybe I could've handled it better. I don't know. Go figure", she shrugged quietly.

"All of us could probably handle a lot of things better every day", Illyana answered, walking alongside Dani. "Even 'Berto", she grinned, "even if he won't admit it. I guess what I'm trying to say is that old cliche, 'everybody makes mistakes', Dani. Right?"

"Right", Dani nodded. "If you don't feel bad about your mistakes, though, you're going to repeat them." The pair walked slowly up the steps of the Temple of Inscriptions, stopping on top of the structure. Dani turned her head around slowly, looking all around the ruins in every direction with a sad expression. "So much history destroyed tonight. And for what? What did we win? Calypso just wanted to go thru all of this to get back the man she loved. For all we know, she might've sent the N'garai home after she was done with that. We didn't stop her from bringing Apocalypse back. We just got our asses kicked, and for what? What?" She sighed and looked at the moon. "We just lost people." No names mentioned.

"Maybe we didn't win anything", Illyana shrugged. "Maybe we lost."

"I don't like to lose", Dani answered.

"Yeah, at which point I'd have to give the 'you've never faced death, have you' speech, and you'd give the 'no, I've cheated it' speech, but fact is, I guess they don't really apply to us, do they?" Illyana asked. "We're younger than Kirk was then, but I think we've had to face death more than he had by that time. I mean, sure, he had his red shirts, but I'm talking friends, people you really care about."

"I'm sure Kirk would be thrilled to hear you say he didn't care about his red shirts", Dani gave a halfhearted smile.

"Yeah blah blah whatever", Illyana shrugged. "But anyway, I mean, except for Spock in that movie, who had he lost before that that he really cared about?"

"Gary Mitchell", Dani said.

"Who?"

"Nevermind", Dani gave a shrug. "It's not important. You're right. We've already gone thru too much. A lot of times I wish I could just leave this work behind. Come up with something that doesn't involve attending a funeral of a friend every year."

"So why don't you?"

"I don't know", Dani said, and then remained quiet for a long while. "I can never come up with anything else I'd like to do. Anything else that I'd *know* how to do. This -- this is what I'm *good* at, Illyana. I mean, *really* good. I know I can do it, and do it well. And there's some kind of a perverse satisfaction I get out of that, I *like* doing this sick stuff simply because I *can*."

"I don't think there's anything perverse about liking to do stuff you're good at", Illyana replied.

"Well, when it risks your life and hurts you, physically and emotionally, on a regular basis..." Dani shrugged. "Isn't that pretty much the definition of masochism?"

"So who says masochism is perverse?" Illyana grinned. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."

"You're sick, Illyana", Dani shook her head with a little smile. "*You're* perverted."

"Ooh, baby, and do I ever like it", Illyana waggled her eyebrows with a lascivious smile. "So when do I get to whip you?"

"Try never", Dani smiled, rolling her eyes. Then, she looked around one more time. "Everyone's gone?"

"Yup", Illyana nodded. "Beefcake left in a helicopter. I took everyone else back to the States."

"The reporters, too?"

"Yup", the blonde nodded again. "They said their car was trashed, so I figured, what the heck."

After a slow nod, Dani looked down quietly. "I miss him."

"Sam or 'Berto?" Illyana asked flat-out.

Dani blinked and looked up at Illyana, thinking the answer was obvious. Then, she thought about it for a few moments and realized it wasn't. Even to her. "Let's go", she changed the topic.

"This is a freebie", Illyana smirked, spreading her arms and summoning a disk of light that swallowed up the two women. Her last words echoed on the ash-filled night breeze for a few moments after they were gone. "If you want three more wishes, you'll have to rub me first..."

A good long while passed after the two women departed.

Then, a pair of eyes glowed in the jungle.

**********************************************************************

-- Samy Merchi | | http://mash.yok.utu.fi/ Reader & fan of superhero comics; writer of superhero fanfiction Female supremacist; anarchist; personal pacifist; mass darwinist

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. here's some kind of a perverse satisfaction I get out of that, I *like* doing this sick stuff simply because I *can*."

"I don't think there's anything perverse about liking to do stuff you're good at", Illyana replied.

"Well, when it risks your life and hurts you, physically and emotionally, on a regular basis..." Dani shrugged. "Isn't that pretty much the definition of masochism?"

"So who says masochism is perverse?" Illyana grinned. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."

"You're sick, Illyana", Dani shook her head with a little smile. "*You're* perverted."

"Ooh, baby, and do I ever like it", Illyana waggled her eyebrows with a lascivious smile. "So when do I get to whip you?"

"Try never", Dani smiled, rolling her eyes. Then, she looked around one more time. "Everyone's gone?"

"Yup", Illyana nodded. "Beefcake left in a helicopter. I took everyone else back to the States."

"The reporters, too?"

"Yup", the blonde nodded again. "They said their car was trashed, so I figured, what the heck."

After a slow nod, Dani looked down quietly. "I miss him."

"Sam or 'Berto?" Illyana asked flat-out.

Dani blinked and looked up at Illyana, thinking the answer was obvious. Then, she thought about it for a few moments and realized it wasn't. Even to her. "Let's go", she changed the topic.

"This is a freebie", Illyana smirked, spreading her arms and summoning a disk of light that swallowed up the two women. Her last words echoed on the ash-filled night breeze for a few moments after they were gone. "If you want three more wishes, you'll have to rub me first..."

A good long while passed after the two women departed.

Then, a pair of eyes glowed in the jungle.


Epilogue

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