by Alicia McKenzie
"Domino, please--" Jean said wearily, leaning heavily on the console for support as she stood up. "We have to--"
"We have to DO something, Jean!" Domino glared at the other woman, feeling a trace of guilt as she noticed the signs of exhaustion Jean was trying so hard to conceal. Xavier had insisted that Jean alternate shifts on Cerebro with him, so that neither of them would exhaust themselves, but even with that, Jean had been scanning continuously for the last six hours. Even the psi-trace had faded by now.
They'd tried everything. Wide-open scans with Cerebro cranked up as high as it would go, narrowly focused probes riding whatever was left of the psi-link, and everything in between. Nothing had worked. Nothing, in almost twenty-four hours. Xavier had gone out of here six hours ago, muttering about EM interference and looking more frustrated than Domino had ever seen him, and she was fairly sure that Jean had been close to tears during these last few attempts.
She wished she could bring herself to feel sympathetic--no, scratch that, she didn't. There wasn't time. The psi-link hadn't had any more of those strange little flare-ups--the psychic version of sympathy pain, according to Xavier--but Domino was still fighting that gut-wrenching sense of urgency. And there was something else, too, some vaguely unsettling sensation that she couldn't quite pin down. Every time anyone came near her, she kept having to stifle the urge to reach out and make sure they were--solid, that they were really there. Part of her seemed to think that anything in her surroundings could disappear at a moment's notice.
And what that implied, she didn't like to think about.
Jean drew herself up straighter, her haggard face settling into a firm expression. "We are doing something, Domino," she said quietly. Almost forlornly. "The only thing we can do--"
"Like hell--" Domino growled.
"Think for a minute!" Jean snapped, beginning to look irritated. "We can't just go thundering in there, Domino. It's too risky. Apocalypse has made short work of our best efforts before, and if it is him, if he does have Nathan, we can't chance not knowing more about what we're getting into--"
"Damn it!" Domino raved, lashing out and sending the chair Jean had just been sitting on into a wild spin on its base. "We got him out of Apocalypse's citadel once, when Tyler had him!" It hadn't been precisely easy, but there'd only been the three of them, her and Storm and Caliban, and they'd managed it.
Jean's eyes narrowed dangerously. Part of Domino pointed out that, still-weakened powers or not, Phoenix was not someone you wanted to piss off. Unfortunately, she wasn't in the mood for prudence at the moment.
"There's a difference between Tyler and Apocalypse!" Jean almost shouted, flushing as red as her hair. "You would see that, if you were thinking straight--"
"Oh, now there's the pot calling the kettle black!" Domino snarled, utterly fed up. She had always called things as she saw them, and tact was the absolute last thing on her mind at the moment. "Xavier's the problem here--not willing to let his precious 'children' go out on a limb, even for one of their own!" she accused. "He's overcompensating for Onslaught and that mess with Magneto--but that doesn't mean the rest of you have to fall in line! Damn it, maybe I should just take X-Force and go on my own!" The idea sounded better and better the more she thought about it, actually--and she KNEW none of the kids would object. Sam had actually half-hinted that they might do better to strike out on their own, and they'd all been climbing the walls ever since they'd gotten to the mansion. Inactivity did not sit well with a group of young people trained to strike first and ask questions later.
Jean straightened further, her face taut with fury. Domino's accusation had clearly hit home. "He's not the only one overcompensating," she said in a low, seething voice.
Domino stared at her, incredulous. "Excuse me?" she shouted.
"You know very well what I said!" Jean's voice was rising again. "You feel so guilty for walking out on Nate--"
"--that you're letting it interfere with the link!" Jean spat. Before Domino could so much as open her mouth, Jean plunged onwards relentlessly, steel in her voice. "The link's just a remnant, not really active, but Charles and I SHOULD be able to follow it to its other end. The fact that we can't means you must be blocking it subconsciously--"
"You think I don't want to find him?" Domino hissed. Of all the fucking gall--what the hell does she know about me, about us? Just because Jean could hear what went on in her head didn't mean she understood what was in her heart, and she was being unbelievably presumptuous, claiming she did! "I want to get him back here safely every bit as much as Scott and you do!"
Jean tossed her hair back over her shoulder. "I know how you feel about him," she said harshly. The unspoken 'but' hung there in the air, but Domino ignored it.
"Like hell you do, Jean!" Domino felt a stinging pain in her palms, distantly realizing that she was clenching her hands into fists so tight that her nails were breaking the skin. It barely registered, though. "You have no idea what's happened between Nate and me--unless you're rooting in my head, and in that case, get the HELL out!"
"I don't need to scan you to know what you're thinking." Now there was an almost contemptuous edge to Jean's voice that nearly snapped Domino's self-control right then and there. How dare she judge me? "You want to find him, but you need it for yourself as much as for him! Because YOU can't live with the idea that you left things the way you did--"
"Well, pardon the fuck out of me, Jean!" Domino snarled. "Some of us only have one shot at things. We can't ALL be privileged to keep coming back from the dead to do things all over again--"
It was a low blow, and it hit paydirt. Green eyes widened indignantly, those perfect lips spitting a curse that probably would have made Cyclops faint. "How DARE you--"
"Whoa! Back off, both of you!" The sound of the door sliding open had gone unnoticed in the heat of the argument, but Logan pushing his way between them was hard to ignore. He gave them a suspicious look, half-disgusted, half-wary. "What do you two think you're doing? Ain't the time to be at each other's throats, whatever it is--"
Jean's shoulders suddenly slumped, the color draining from her face. "No, it's not," she said exhaustedly, the anger vanishing. "And I'm sorry, Domino--that was out of line. Way out of line."
Domino swallowed. "Not any more than I was," she said numbly, the brief rush of adrenalin fading into aching weariness. Most of the time, twenty-four hours without sleep was no big deal, but whatever was going on with the link was taking a lot out of her. Or whatever's going on with Nate, through the link-- She cut off the thought instantly, before it could grow and fester. "You really think I'm blocking the link?" she asked painfully.
Jean rubbed at her temples. "I don't know," she whispered. "I don't know, Domino--a deep scan might tell me, but--"
"Do it," Domino said, without hesitation. At the shocked look Jean gave her, Domino swallowed. The idea of letting a telepath root around in her mind to that extent scared the hell out of her--it had been bad enough to FEEL them in there, nosing around to find her end of the link--but if that was what it took--damn it, Nate, you're going to owe me big-time for this. A near-hysterical laugh tried to sneak out, but she caught herself before it did.
That was all she wanted, in the end. To have him here, alive and well, to bitch at.
"You were right, you know," she admitted to Jean awkwardly, her eyes stinging. She rubbed the back of her hand across them angrily. She was NOT going to cry. "I keep thinking of what I said to him the last time we--I can't leave it like that, Jean, I can't--"
Logan gave her a measuring look, and then glanced back at Jean, just as appraisingly. "You two need to take a break," he growled.
Jean gave him a tight smile, her eyes suspiciously bright. "Not a chance, Logan, and you know that."
"'Course not," Logan sighed.
He tried to scream, as the huge, shadowy figure loomed over him, spreading leathery wings and leering at him, its teeth glinting sharply in its elongated snout. Nothing came out, not a sound, and the demon laughed eerily as it reached for him with tri-clawed hands.
"Do hurry, N'astirh," came a sultry voice from somewhere off to the left. Choking on the creature's fetid breath, he turned his head in that direction and met the laughing green eyes of a red-haired woman in black. "We don't have all day," she said conversationally.
"No goodbyes, my Queen?" the demon hissed. He shuddered at the sound of its voice, smooth as silk and yet indescribably foul, as rotten as day-old meat.
And then she was there, standing in front of him. "Too bad, kiddo," she said, reaching up and caressing his face in an almost motherly gesture. Her touch was like ice. "Should have been just you and me, from the beginning--" She drew away, fading into the distance, that peculiar smile, sad and twisted and yet so familiar, playing on her lips.
There was something he should call out. A name. A plea. He didn't know. And he had no voice, so maybe it didn't matter.
"A juicy morsel," the demon hissed, reappearing in front of him. "Named for his grandfathers--"
"Men of power--"
Clawed hands holding him. Rough, uncaring. Horrible rasping voices, laughing. Crying for help, reaching out over and over again to that dim flicker at the edge of his mind, the light that used to mean warmth and comfort and safety, but was now dull and seething, painful to touch, pulling away every time he came near it.
"An infant of purity--" the demon continued in that soul-shredding voice.
Pure--some part of him almost found that funny. So far from pure. Blood everywhere. Not just on his hands. Everywhere. Stained with blood, swimming in blood, drowning in blood.
Blood--everywhere. Dripping from his hands. Seeping from his pores, as he was turned inside out, the stain on his soul exposed for the world to see.
The blood was almost black, each drop reflecting a screaming face. Screaming soundlessly, like he was. He watched it drip to the sand and vanish. Pieces of his soul. What was left of his soul.
The demon reached out a clawed hand, caught a few of the drops. Brought the hand to its mouth, cleaning itself like a cat. "Delicious," it hissed. "Power in blood--power in death. But you know that, don't you, Chosen One?"
Nausea, as it leaned closer to him, eyes glowing luridly. "Just like her," it said. "You know the darkness in your own soul--you revel in it. It gives you strength." A clawed hand closed delicately around his throat. "Like mother, like son."
He screamed, a raw, choked sound managing to escape his ravaged vocal chords and parched throat. But even as he did, he realized it was human hands gripping his shoulders, Logan's face in front of him. Unmasked, sober.
"Wake up," Logan growled. The blood ran in rivulets around Logan's fingers, like tiny dark snakes, creeping down his forearms. Logan didn't seem to notice it. "Nate, damn it, wake up!"
"He's losing it," Worthington said caustically, folding his metal wings and giving Cable a disgusted look from where he stood behind Logan.
Beside him, Rogue looked like she was about to burst into tears. "He ain't gonna make it, is he?" she whispered.
"Shut up, both of you!" Logan growled. The blood was still winding its way up his arms. "Snap OUT of it, Nate!" He was in street clothes instead of his uniform, wearing an eye-patch.
Eye-patch. Patch. Madripoor. No--not Patch. Logan
"Leave him alone, Logan," Warren said with a sneer. "He can't cut it."
Rogue whirled and glared at Warren. "You shut up, angel-boy, before ah punch your lights out!" She stepped forward and took Cable's hand. The blood started to wrap around her wrist, but she didn't seem bothered. She saw what he was looking at and let go of his hand, raising hers. The blood was still there. "You think this bothers me, Nate?" she asked. "You think ah ain't had blood on mah hands before? Worse than blood?"
"Both of you have," Warren said with a laugh. "Worse than blood. Broken hopes. Broken dreams. You steal lives, Rogue. So does this piece of garbage." He gestured carelessly at Cable. "At least you're honest enough to admit it, 'sugar'. Not like him."
"Yeah, he's pretty darned good at lying t'himself," Sam said bleakly. "Not as good as he was at lying to us, though." Sam walked into his field of view, bleeding from where Sauron's wing had impaled him. He saw Cable's eyes go to the wound, and gave him a thin smile. "Whoops," he said. "Guess you screwed up, sir. Ah don't seem to be immortal after all." He came closer, close enough to let Cable see that his skin had the unmistakable waxen pallor of death. "You're disappointed, ah guess. So sorry ah couldn't have been more use t'you."
"I knew he'd get us all killed," Rictor snarled. A younger Rictor, the insecure boy he'd been rather than the young man who'd finally found a place and a purpose with X-Force. He looked just as he had the day he'd snuck into the Morlock tunnels, determined to prove himself--and run right into Victor Creed. Blood coursed freely from the wounds Creed had given him, but Ric didn't seem to notice. "Acting like he knew what was best from us, right from the start--"
"We trusted ye," Terry sobbed from where she hovered over Jimmy's still body, sprawled on the sand. "We trusted ye, and ye LEFT us!"
"A good general does not desert his troops, Cable," Shatterstar said, Arcade hovering at his side, giggling.
"You don't leave your family," Tabitha insisted, tears in her eyes. She came right up to him, standing right beside Logan. "We needed you," she said, tears flowing freely down her face. "But you decided you didn't need us. Thanks a lot, big guy."
"Oh, but we were 'ready', weren't we, Cable?" Reignfire said mockingly. Reignfire, dragging a limp, bloody shape that Cable could barely recognize as Bobby behind him as he came forward.
"Will Cable-Nathan remember Caliban?" The haunting, mournful voice came out of empty air like a ghostly echo.
X-Force. Dying. In pain.
"Never should have listened to you--"
Never should have gotten them involved.
"Don't listen to them, Nate," Logan said with a growl, eyeing X-Force angrily. He had taken a step back when Rogue had come forward, but the blood was still spreading over him, wrapping him in shadows. All of him that Cable could see clearly was his face. "If you'll listen to them, you're gonna die, bub."
"Sugar, you know what the truth is," Rogue said insistently. The black tide had risen to her shoulder, now, spreading upwards and across her face, like a shadow of the T-O virus.
"Of course he knows what the truth is!" A laughing, familiar voice, as Tyler strode forward. Tyler as he'd seen him last, lying on the slab in the medlab, barely recognizable as his son, underneath the wounds from Logan's claws. The corpse grinned at him. "That's what makes it so bad, don't you see? He KNOWS what he's done, and he doesn't regret it! He just says 'what is, is' and keeps right on going!"
Sam gave him a wounded look. "He got us killed, Tyler."
"Of course he did!" The corpse laughed again, as if at a great joke. "Sooner or later, he kills everyone he loves!" Tyler was suddenly there, standing between him and Logan and Rogue, who were little more than black shapes now, nothing left of them but their eyes, fixed on him. "Sooner or later, you'll ALWAYS be alone, Father," Tyler spat, no longer laughing. "Alone and miserable. Always. Because, in the end, that's all--you--DESERVE!"
Cable moaned, his head falling to his chest. Not her. Not her, too.
There was the sound of running footsteps on the sand, which came to an abrupt halt. "Oh, God."
The pain in her voice--different. Something was different. He fought to lift his head, unable to hold back a whimper of pain as he opened his eyes and the sunlight seemed to stab into his mind.
There was no one else but her there. No Logan, no Tyler, no Rogue, no X-Force. Just her, standing a few feet away, frozen in shock. She snapped out of it as soon as he met her eyes, moving forward more slowly, tentatively, as if approaching an injured wild animal.
"Nathan, it's all right," she said in the gentlest voice he'd ever heard from her. Soothing, reassuring, utterly level. "I'll get you down from there, just hold on." He flinched as she came near him, and those brilliant violet eyes filled with tears. "Damn him," she whispered. "It's all right, Nate, I'm not going to hurt you."
The blood would swallow her up, too. He couldn't let her touch him. He tried to pull away as she reached up to feel for a pulse at his throat, but he couldn't. It hurt too much to move, he was too weak--
Her touch was cool. Not icy, like the red-haired woman's had been. Those luminous eyes held his for a moment, and then narrowed in worry. She let her hand drop to her side. No blood on it. A shudder of indescribable relief went through his body. He had never wanted it to touch her, her of all people, her above everyone else--
"Nate," she said, more briskly. "I don't know how much you understand of what I'm saying, but I'm going to keep talking, all right?" She pulled something off her belt. A knife. No, not just a knife, he realized. His knife. "The others are keeping Apocalypse and the Dark Riders busy back at the fortress," she said calmly, studying his restraints. "I'll get you out, and then give them the signal to retreat. It's going to be all right, Nathan. We're going to get you out of here."
The knife wouldn't cut through the restraints. Cable knew that. He tried to say it, but there was nothing left of his voice. All that came out was a croak.
Domino's eyes narrowed even further, and she reached up, touching the side of his face gently, a light caress. "Trust me," she said insistently. "I'll get you out of here, Nate. You called me, you know. And I came, just like always."
Like always. She always did.
A tiny smile tugged at her lips. "You do trust me, right?"
"You do believe I'm going to get you out, right? You do WANT to be free?"
He managed one, exhausted nod, and she smiled contentedly, leaning up and kissing him lightly.
"That's what I'm here for," she whispered.
And slid the knife between his ribs.
In one moment, the delicate ebb and flow of the astral plane was violently ripped asunder, its intricate patterns of tangible thought disrupted on every level by the psionic shockwave that erupted as one of the astral's brightest points of light suddenly imploded, self-destructing with devastating force.
From his vantage point on the Blue Area of the moon, Uatu, the Watcher, dispassionately observed the chaos on the psionic plane.
In the nearest city, Aswan, the entire population was suddenly afflicted by blinding headaches and bloody noses, while the minds of the few unfortunate psi-sensitives in the area were snuffed out like candles. Similar effects were felt within an enormous radius, as far away as Alexandria in the north and well into Sudan in the south.
In a brownstone in Greenwich Village, Stephen Strange cursed softly as his scrying pool filled with a kaleidoscopic pattern of rapidly dissipating fragments. "By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth," he whispered in horror. "This was not meant to happen!"
In a decaying apartment in Hell's Kitchen, a meditating man opened his eyes abruptly as the world seemed to lurch around him, the invisible pattern of energies in which every living thing functioned twisting violently. "Fuckin' hell," muttered Stick, struggling to re-center his wa. "Another blasted one of 'em, plunging right off the damned Path--"
In Australia, Gateway closed his head, tears trickling down his seamed face as he bowed his head in commiseration for his fellow creature's pain.
In the timestream, a red-clad woman on a seemingly endless journey awoke from sleep with a howl of anguish. "NATHAN!" screamed Rachel Summers, helpless to do anything as she felt her brother's mind shatter.
In Dallas, Forge cursed as his monitoring equipment went wild. "What the hell?" he swore, scanning the monitors. Some kind of incredibly intense psionic distortion-- Then his computer identified the power signature, and the color drained from Forge's face.
And in the somewhere between death and life, a Scots-born mutant named Kevin MacTaggert began to giggle, and giggle, and giggle.
From the Golden Realms, a sun-haired God paused, hammer spinning. A solitary tear tracked its way down his rough-hewn face as Mjolnir opened a hole between space and time. "May Odin receive you in Valhalla, warrior," he whispered in a brief prayer as he stepped through.
On the Fields of Ida, Hercules also slowed his steps. "Crosis!" he roared. "Crosis, check your blasted book, Titan! That warrior's not due for death yet, I'll stake my beard upon it!"
Elsewhere, the Gamesmaster screamed, as the flux on the astral plane scraped across his omnipathic senses like sandpaper, leaving only shreds in its wake.
In Hammer Bay, Magneto stiffened, feeling a strange, oddly familiar sort of flutter in the Earth's electromagnetic field. Half a world away, Lorna Dane froze in the midst of pouring herself a cup of coffee, and wondered.
In the Soho loft she shared with Warren, Betsy screamed as the shockwave hit her. Instinctively, she began to throw up her shields, but a laugh of pure triumph echoed in the empty hallways of her mind, and her heart nearly froze in her chest as she realized what she'd almost done. #Not a CHANCE, you bastard!# she shrieked at Farouk, and fought to lock her telepathy back down, to close the door on the prison once more. Somehow, even with her senses reeling, she managed itshe managed, even with her senses still reeling, and sank to her knees, weeping.
At Braddock Manor, Meggan Braddock shrieked and fell into her husband's arms, her empathy overloading. She felt herself shifting shape in an instinctive defensive reaction, but couldn't stop herself, couldn't even respond to Brian's frantic calling of her name as the wave of anguish battered her senses, pulling her down into the darkness.
At the Massachusetts Academy, Emma Frost fell forward onto her desk, limp and insensible, struck down before she could even scream. Monet St. Croix and Jonothan Starsmore, linked to her so she could demonstrate the day's lesson, crumpled almost simultaneously.
And there were those who it hit even harder.
"Still nothing, Scott?" Ororo's voice asked softly from over his shoulder. She had startled him but he was too exhausted to show it.
"Nothing," he said dully, not turning to face her, his eyes fixed on the three people sitting in utter silence at Cerebro's console. "Charles and Jean are linked to each other and to Domino--" And none of them had so much as twitched for a full two hours. Not a word, not a sound.
"Haven't they tried that already?"
This time, Scott did turn, to look at Sam where he stood beside Ororo. "They're trying it again," he said, meeting the younger man's blue eyes and seeing the same desperate weariness, the same fear he himself was barely managing to control. "How's your team?" The words were out of his mouth before he even thought them through. But it was only the truth, he supposed. Sam had never been comfortable as an X-Man. It wasn't his family--not like X-Force had been.
A family missing their 'father'.
Sam gave him a tight smile. "Holdin' on, sir. But ah don't know how much longer they're--WE'RE," he corrected himself, "gonna be content with sittin' here and just hopin' Cable turns up on Cerebro."
Ororo gave him a sympathetic look, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. "We understand, Samuel," she said gently, and glanced at Scott. "Perhaps I should speak to them?" she suggested.
Scott didn't know how much good that would do--he knew all too well how X-Force felt--but he nodded anyways. "It can't hurt--"
Something flashed up the psi-link, a mixture of pain and fear and hopeless, helpless desolation, and Scott staggered. In the next moment, Jean and the Professor screamed in unison, shattering the hushed atmosphere in the War Room beyond repair. The Professor slumped over the front of his hoverchair and Jean slid from her chair into a crumpled heap on the ground. Regaining his balance, Scott was across the room before his mind could even process the scene, kneeling down and pulling his wife into his arms.
"Jean!" he said desperately. "Jean!" She was ashen, breathing shallowly, blood trickling from her nose. He could feel her through the psi-link, but she wasn't responding to his telepathic calls. Jean, can you hear me? Jean, wake up, please-- He glanced up, seeing Ororo bending over the Professor. "Storm," Scott asked raggedly, "is he--"
"Breathing," Ororo said bleakly, pulling Charles upright and removing the Cerebro helmet from his head. "Some sort of backlash, perhaps--" She looked past Scott, her eyes widened. "Goddess--Domino!"
Still holding Jean, Scott half-turned towards Domino. She was frozen in her chair, a look of unspeakable horror on her face. Sam was behind her, his hands on her shoulders, calling her name softly, but she didn't respond.
"Domino!" Scott snapped in his best 'command' voice, desperately willing her to answer. She shuddered, as if he'd hit her. "Domino, what happened? DOMINO!"
"Nathan--" she gasped, beginning to tremble uncontrollably. "Nathan--" Something twisted in Scott's chest, and he looked down at Jean, lying so still in his arms. He felt like he was about to be sick. Oh, God, please, no--
Sam's hands tightened on Domino's shoulders, misery in his eyes. "Ma'am--Dom--what happened?" he begged.
Jean's eyes flew open, and she gave a strangled gasp, trying to struggle free of Scott's arms. "Nathan--no--NO!" Scott tried to restrain her, and she stared up at him as if she had no idea who he was. A moment later, her eyes cleared. "Scott--" she whispered, sitting up. She glanced at Charles, who groaned, beginning to stir. Then her head whipped around towards Domino, and she scrambled to her feet, stumbling over to her. "Domino," she said desperately, swaying on her feet and leaning on the Cerebro console for support. "Domino, focus--can you sense him?"
"Jean, what's happening?" Scott demanded shakily, looking back and forth from her to Charles, who was straightening in his chair, looking dazed but more or less all right, mumbling something about Cerebro's shielding. "Please, Jean--" he almost begged, looking back at his wife, who was kneeling down in front of Domino's chair, taking the other woman's hands in her own.
"Hold on, Scott," Jean said in an unsteady voice. "Domino, focus. Focus on the link, please--"
"C-Can't," Domino said in an eerie voice, still shaking like a leaf. "Nate--" There were tears in her eyes, pouring down her face freely. "Nate, no--I didn't, Nate--don't--"
Don't WHAT? Scott wanted to scream. "Jean--" His voice sounded like it belonged to someone else.
Charles's hoverchair drifted over to Jean and Domino. He stared at the two of them, that particular intensity in his eyes that meant he was focusing his telepathy. "Fading--in and out--" he whispered, beads of sweat beginning to stand out on his forehead. "My God--"
Domino suddenly wrenched her hands free of Jean's. The tears were still on her face, but her eyes were fully alert, if still filled with more pain than Scott had ever seen from his son's partner before. "The desert," she whispered in anguish. "The fucking son of a bitch has him hanging out in the goddamned DESERT--"
"Just outside the fortress," Jean said bleakly, swaying again as she stood.
"You found him?" Sam asked desperately.
"More like he found us." Jean turned back towards him, her shaking hands clenched into fists at her sides. "I'll kill him," she whispered. "I'll kill that bastard with my bare hands, I swear it--" Power seemed to sizzle in the air, emanating from her like heatwaves, or vague outlines of wings. Her eyes were terrible.
"Jean," Charles said hoarsely. "You must calm down. We must--" His voice actually broke, and Scott gave him an appalled look.
"What the hell happened?" he demanded, his precarious control slipping. "Will someone PLEASE tell me what's going on?"
"Nathan is gone," Domino whispered, her gaze turning inward again, but her eyes still bright with tears. "The link is there--stronger than it's been for weeks--but there's nothing on the other end. Nothing."
A lump appeared in Scott's throat. "G-Gone?" he whispered, forcing the word out past it. "Not--"
"Not dead, Scott," Charles said painfully. Scott whirled, meeting his mentor's eyes, desperately seeking for some flicker of reassurance there, anything to drive the terror back. He found nothing. No comfort at all. "Nathan's mind has--collapsed."
Scott stared at him. "What?" he breathed.
"He seems to have been under immense stress--delirious." Charles' eyes flickered to Domino. "Some sort of interaction with his own hallucination triggered the equivalent of astral suicide--and sent a shockwave of tremendous force across the psi-plane." He rubbed at his temples, wincing. "I doubt any telepath on the planet was unaffected."
"What does that mean?" Sam asked, sounding terribly young. "If--if he's alive, we can get him out o'there, right? Ah don't--" He stopped as Domino reached up and squeezed his hand tightly. "Ah can't--ah won't give up on him," Sam whispered dazedly.
"No one is suggesting that, Samuel," Charles said tiredly, looking back at Domino, who sat there, staring straight ahead, her features twisted with anguish. "The link didn't break. He is still alive. It's impossible to tell the extent of the damage from here--but we must get to him as soon as possible, if Jean and I are to have any chance at repairing it."
Scott straightened, pushing away the fear with all the strength he could muster. Nathan was alive. For the moment, that was all that mattered. "You pinpointed his location?" he asked harshly, the question directed to both Charles and Jean. Jean nodded vehemently. "Then let's go," he grated.
We're coming, Nate. And God help anyone who got between him and his son.
Reconstituting her corporeal form was, as it had been when Farouk had disrupted the astral plane, an excruciating experience. Her self was smeared across the astral, distorted, fragmented. Only a sheer act of will allowed her to pull herself back together and manifest once more in the physical world.
Madelyne screamed as she reappeared, doubling over and crumpling to her knees. Waves of agony swept over her, but she gritted her teeth and endured them until they receded a little. She straightened as much as she could, still gasping for air that she really didn't need, since she had no lungs.
Nate was sprawled on the floor in front of her, blood pouring from his nose and ears, utterly unconscious. She reached out to his mind, seeing without much surprise that he was in shock. Of course he was. He was the most powerful telepath on the planet, and tied inextricably to the one whose mind had just self-destructed.
Tears stung her eyes. Nathan-- Standing shakily, she half-dragged, half-carried Nate over to the bed. He wasn't in any immediate danger, she told herself, standing over him for a long moment. She'd go get Nathan and bring him back here, and then she could take care of both of them. Yes. That's what she'd do. Take care of the only two people who meant a damn to her.
The rest of the world could go to hell.
Drawing herself up, concentrating desperately, she teleported, re-emerging into the Egyptian desert, under the blazing sun. And, all things considered, her aim had been pretty much perfect.
Before her was the wooden 'X' she'd seen in that flash of images that had accompanied the shockwave. Her son was hanging on it, utterly limp in his restraints, only the faint rise and fall of his chest telling her that he was still alive.
Only that. Because she couldn't get any sort of telepathic impression from him. Nothing at all.
Fighting the urge to fall to her knees and scream out her grief for all the world to hear, Madelyne walked shakily over to the 'X'. The pain didn't go away as she got a better look at him. If anything, it got worse.
Flesh burned to the point of blistering by the sun. Cuts, terrible bruises--enough visible injuries to hint at worse damage beneath the surface. The T-0 virus, spreading slowly but inexorably, even as she watched.
A broken body, to match the wreckage in his mind.
Hands shaking, she reached up to test the restraints. They were made of some metal she'd never seen before, light and yet incredibly strong. She couldn't find any locks, any hinges. Concentrating, she tried to tear them open telekinetically. Nothing--damn it, what were they made out of? She couldn't seem to grasp their structure. Damn it--
"Not a problem," she said shakily, mostly to herself. "I'll just teleport him right out of the restraints." She set about doing just that--and shrieked in agony at the feedback that hit her as soon as she tried to establish the necessary link with Nathan's splintered mind.
Stumbling backwards, she fought for composure and shielded herself as much as she could before she tried again. The pain wasn't as bad, this time, but the link still wouldn't snap into place.
There wasn't enough left of his mind to support the other end.
Crying in frustration, Madelyne tried again, and again, and again, failing every time. She couldn't leave him here, she couldn't--
Her consciousness echoing with pain, utterly focused on the goal of getting her son off that damned thing and away to someplace safe, she didn't sense the approaching presence until it was almost too late. Her eyes snapped open, the color draining from her face as she realized who was approaching.
Someone you can NOT take on by yourself, Madelyne, a dry, pragmatic part of her mind pointed out. And you can't do Nathan any good if your existence comes to an abrupt and ugly end.
Logic--and self-preservation--won out as the presence drew closer. "Hold on, Nate," she whispered, reaching up and stroking silver hair back from his forehead. The heat of his skin was terrifying. "I'll get you out of this, I swear."
I just have to figure out how.
She altered her form to make herself invisible to normal sight just as Apocalypse crested the last dune and strode, unhurriedly, down to stand in front of Nathan. The External's expression was unreadable. Hatred seething inside her like a volcano waiting to erupt, Madelyne wondered if he understood what had happened--if he was pleased, if he did.
You bastard--I'll see you dead for this, I swear--
"Time to be forged anew," Apocalypse said, that thunderous voice surprisingly hushed.
If Madelyne had had a real heart, it would have lurched in her chest at that enigmatic statement. As it was, she felt cold to the core of her being as she watched Apocalypse take Nathan down from the 'X', somehow managing to appear both careful and indifferent as he did so.
What did he mean to do? As she followed Apocalypse back towards the fortress, Madelyne trembled with supressed rage and fear so strong that she was having difficulty maintaining her unseen state.
More to the point, how was she going to stop him?
to be continued...
Back to Archive