by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters depicted in the Hall of Images are Marvel's. Everyone else is mine. This could be considered an answer to Kaylee's 'Blow Me Away' challenge, Em's 'Allegory' challenge, or my own 'Storyteller's' challenge. Or all three. Take your pick. It's set sometime in the thirty-second century, over a thousand years after current Marvel continuity, and five centuries before Cable's time. Those of you well-versed in the 'future-setting' Limited Series like the Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix may recognize the Xavier Collective and the Scions of Genetics. The Polarity, however, is my own invention.
To the Decani, Gracanica, Racovica, Zica, Vojlovica, and Pavlica monasteries.
To the Church of St. Procopius, the Monastery of St. Nicholas, the Church of the Virgin, the Markova Crkva Archaeological Site.
To Varadin's bridge in Novi Sad, the Kovil Monastery, the Banovina Palace, and the Sopocani Monastery.
For all the UN World Heritage Sites damaged or destroyed in the NATO attack on Yugoslavia.
And always, forever, for Montecassino. In memoria.
May we someday learn that destroying the past, erasing a people's legacy, is only another form of ethnic cleansing, and every bit as much a crime of war.
There was very little joy in the morning anymore, Mayan thought wearily as she laid in bed, staring up at the ceiling of her room. She felt groggy, exhausted, her body unwilling to move.
Lately, part of her had begun to wonder what the point was of getting up at all. The only thing morning held was more anxiety, more fear. Even the nightmares that came with sleep were preferable to the endless waiting that marked the waking hours
Then again, she had a class to teach. Perhaps it was foolish, clinging to routine like this under these circumstances, but she knew that it helped the children. She was even willing to admit to herself that it helped her, too, in some mysterious way she was unable to quite vocalize.
The security of the known, she thought suddenly as she slid from bed. A refuge, of a sorts, if a fragile one. She crossed the room, moving stiffly, feeling every year she had lived in aching joints and muscles. A wave of her hand, and the window went from opaque to transparent, giving her a panoramic view of her city.
Beautiful, doomed Madrina, she thought, overcome by a sudden sense of desolation as she stared out at the soaring towers and skyways. Not her birth city, perhaps, but her home nonetheless, for almost three decades now. Mayan closed her eyes, envisioning the skyways fallen, the towers broken and blacked. The image had haunted her dreams for months, now, but familiarity didn't make it any less painful.
It wasn't just her pain, Mayan knew, opening her eyes again, only to wince as she saw a militia patrol pass by in the street below. Pain was the atmosphere of the city, these days. It might be subsumed beneath anxiety, or, in the case of these young men she watched now, a determination to do their duty and protect their home, but it was still there. Tendrils of it reached up to her from the streets, from minds still sleeping and those wide awake as she herself was, facing their uncertain future. Mayan felt her eyes sting with tears, and closed them again, cursing the empathy she had once considered such a gift.
But in the days she had blessed her mutant ability, she had never imagined she would find herself empathically attuned with a city that knew it had reached its last days.
And that changed everything.
She stepped briefly into the sonic shower, then donned the simple white robe of a teacher and left her room. Months ago, when they had recognized what was coming, Mayan had decided she would not withdraw from the rest of the world, as so many of her people had. She had heard of some who had taken to living night and day in their shelters, terrified of being caught outside on the streets if an attack came. Mayan couldn't look down upon them for it--she couldn't help understanding how they felt, considering her mutant ability--but she would not emulate them. Whatever life she had left, she would not live it cowering in a corner.
On her way down through the halls of the Scholastia, the chapterhouse of the Xavier Collective here in Madrina, she saw more signs of militia activity outside. It was unsettling. Regular patrols were one thing--they had been going on since the beginning of this--but there was something new here, a sense of urgency and dread that wormed its way through her shields no matter what she did, making her feel almost nauseous.
She finally crossed paths with one of her colleagues, Arven, a wry, dark-skinned man from the far south of the Penninsula. Unlike most teachers, he didn't have the empathic gift, but that had never been a problem for someone of his talents. He was one of those rare creatures, a brilliant scholar who loved to teach, and Mayan had always liked him a great deal. She still cherished a mild regret that his tastes had never run to women.
But the faint flash of pleasure she felt at seeing him approaching faded instantly as he drew closer. Her friend, her good-natured friend who had been nothing but cheerful and encouraging throughout these last long weeks, was drawn and exhausted, visibly distressed. She could sense his emotions in murky turmoil, so powerfully that she bit her lip and reluctantly strengthened her shields even further. She had trouble enough dealing with her own emotions, these days.
"Bright Lady bless you, Arven," Mayan said softly as they came to a stop, facing each other.
Arven nodded almost brusquely. "May she bless all of us today, Mayan," he said hoarsely.
Mayan felt a shard of ice lodge itself in the vicinity of her heart. "There's news?" she asked, managing, just barely, to keep her voice from shaking. Of course there was news. With what she had seen already this morning, there would have to be, wouldn't there? She might be a 'cloistered academic', but she didn't need to have something pushed in her face to recognize it.
Arven nodded again, his mouth tightening. "We've lost contact with the chapterhouse in Baltair," he reported, his voice quiet enough so that no one would overhear. Not that he needed to worry, Mayan thought distantly, almost absently. The halls of the Scholastia were so empty this morning, she doubted there was anyone near enough to make the precaution neccessary.
That only made her begin to wonder where everyone was.
"That can only mean one thing, Mayan," Arven continued bleakly, "as much as I'd like to pretend otherwise."
"The Polarity's airships have reached the penninsula," she said, very quietly. It was the news they had been waiting for, the news they had feared.
Inevitable, of course. It had only been a matter of time before the Polarity overcame the forces of the North African Confederacy and won themselves an unobstructed path to Eurasia. Their numbers were too overwhelming, their technology too highly advanced for the long-peaceful city-states of North Africa to hold off for long.
Arven's dark eyes flashed. "I would see them and their cursed Crimson Father damned to hell for this," he grated. His anger, his furious helplessness, crashed into her awareness like waves against the coast. Her overtaxed shields barely held. "The Penninsular cities have never offered them offense--"
Mayan smiled, tiredly, humorlessly. "Remember the histories," she reminded Arven. "It may have been a few centuries--"
"Try almost twelve, Mayan, which only makes this more ridiculous!"
"But the Polarity hasn't forgotten," she pointed out, wishing he would calm down. She would have to end this conversation soon, she knew, if she was to remain in control of herself. Otherwise her empathy would get the better of her, and after struggling against that very fate since the war had begun, she wasn't about to give in now. "They swore an oath to eradicate the lineage of Xavier. Unfortunately, my friend, we all fall into that category."
"I'm surprised the citizens haven't turned on us already," Arven muttered.
"Don't be ridiculous, Arven." She smiled again, this time sadly. "The Collective's chapterhouses have been established in the Penninsular cities for five hundred years. We've worked beside them, taught their children--mutant and humans have lived in perfect harmony for too long for us to be ousted simply because we share altered DNA with the Polarity's redhelmets."
Arven swore under his breath. "So they die, because of us? Because our race continues to tear itself apart over an ideological war that ended at the turn of the last millenium?"
She could have pointed out that the war had never truly ended. That, according to the legends, it had merely lain in abeyance while mutantkind faced a common threat, only to emerge with a vengeance centuries later when the Scions of Genetics had allowed themselves to be drawn into a bloody war with the forces of the High Acolyte, a mistake for which she and the rest of the Xavier Collective were now paying. She had had more than a few friends in the chapterhouses of North Africa. Mayan didn't even want to think of what sort of fate they had suffered.
"One race, Arven," she reminded him, instead. "We're all human--"
"And we'll all die together," he spat.
Mayan stiffened. "Then pick up a weapon and join the militia," she said, more coldly than she'd intended. "Or flee." That was not an option, of course. The border with Fanshia was closed to refugees, there was nowhere TO run. Some from the northern cities had tried, and reportedly been slain when Fanshian border guards opened fire on the refugees. Fanshia had never welcomed the Xavier Collective, and Mayan could understand their Council's desire not to give the Polarity an excuse to attack them, as well. She did question whether non-interference would be effective, however. The Polarity had a taste for expansion now--she doubted it would be sated so easily.
But none of that really mattered, at the moment. All that it meant for her and the other citizens of the Penninsula was that there was no escape. It was why Madrina and every other Penninsular city were just waiting, hoping that the Polarity would accept their surrender. There was little chance of that, of course. If she would not have been as much hindrance as help, Mayan would have taken her own suggestion and joined the militia. Losing cause or not, Madrina would fight.
But she was no warrior. More than that, she was old. Good for nothing save teaching, at the moment--soothing the fears of the young as she could not do for their elders. Time enough she was about it, she decided. Reaching up, she took Arven's face between her hands, sending a wave of soothing emotion towards him as she kissed him lightly on the forehead.
"The wisdom of Xavier go with you," she said, a little unsteadily. "I will see you at the evening meal, if the Bright Lady wills."
Surprisingly, he embraced her. "Whether she does or not, Mayan, I have been richer for knowing you." His voice in her ear was rough with emotion. "I just wanted you to know that."
He was gone before she could say another word. Brushing tears away, smoothing her robe, Mayan went to join her class.
"Teacher, why aren't we in the classroom today?"
The question came from one of Mayan's newest students, the daughter of one of Madrina's council members, a bright-eyed, inquisitive child whose mother had sent her here to learn control over an impressive shapeshifting ability. Mayan smiled at her, laying a hand on her shoulder.
"Very good question, Vena," she said lightly. "Before I answer it, do any of you know where we are, what this place is?"
She had twelve students today, almost a full class. Odd, she had thought, that the children's parents would permit them to attend classes as if this was just an ordinary day, and there were no Polarity airships on their way to bring the 'rain of fire' the Crimson Father was calling for.
Then again, most of these children had parents in the militia. There was no one to care for them, in their own homes, and the chapterhouse had a shelter far better than most of the buildings in Madrina had. This was, perhaps, the best place for these children. The only place, for a few.
And she would do what she could to fulfill their parents' trust in her.
Ruven, one of the older boys, peered at the smooth metal door Mayan was standing beside, and frowned. "Someplace we aren't supposed to go," he stated baldly. He was being remarkably calm about the whole situation. His father had not been so calm, Mayan reflected. A commander in the militia, the towering, stone-faced man had wept openly as he walked away, leaving his son in this questionable safety to return to his post. "Red light, right?" He gestured at the lit panel above the door. "Off-limits."
Mayan nodded. "True, little brother," she said easily. "The proctors don't like to see children running through the places of meditation--disrupts the mood, they say. But I thought I'd make an exception today." She laid her hand against the lockpad, and the door slid aside. "Come along, children," she said with a warm smile, and walked through the door.
"Stars in their gait," one of the older girls whispered. "This is the Hall, isn't it, teacher?" She turned reverent, glowing eyes on Mayan, who smiled back at her.
"Yes," she said, more lightly than the occasion really warranted. "This is the Hall of Images."
It stretched out before them, a long, wide corridor with a transparent ceiling, to let in the sunlight. Mayan preferred to walk the Hall in the day. At night, the images seemed to come alive, and the experience was a little too eerie for her liking.
Ruven looked impressed. So did the other boys, all of whom usually considered themselves jaded enough not to care about such things. The reactions of the girls ranged from silent awe to tears. Seeing the latter on Vena's face, Mayan was oddly touched.
"All the stories," the little girl whispered. "They're all here, aren't they, teacher."
Mayan laughed softly, feeling delight, for the first time in a long time, at the girl's reaction. "Most of them," she said, turning and gesturing at the first fresco. "Who can tell me the story behind this image?" she asked. Ordinarily, she might have been more selective, picking specific images to show them, but today, they had nothing but time.
And part of her wanted to have them see it all, every image in the Hall. All masterpieces in their own right, centuries old, the panels transported here from across Eurasia when the chapter house had been built. The icons of the dream they followed. So fragile--so beautiful.
"That's easy," Ruven said boldly, startling Maya out of her reverie. "That's Ironheart, the man of steel." He pumped a fist in the air. "I wish I was like him--I'd show those redhelmets what was what!"
"Ruven," Mayan said severely as she sensed the unease spread through her students like a cold wind at Ruven's words. She reached out empathically to calm them, almost without thinking. "Mind on the lesson, please." This was an exercise in distraction, above anything else, and she wasn't going to let anything interfere with the tenuous sense of peace the Hall had created for these children.
"Yes, teacher," he muttered.
"Besides," Mayan continued, taking a step closer to the fresco and admiring, yet again, the elegance of it. The artist had been dead for centuries, and yet she could see the reflection of a soul here, of loving attention to detail, of awe and respect for the subject material. "You're missing the point of this image." Her fingers drifted across the figure of Ironheart, portrayed not in the stance of a warrior, but bent over a tablet of some sort on his lap. "What is Ironheart doing?" she asked softly. "Not fighting, surely. And who is this?" She pointed to the wispy outline of a form in the corner of the fresco, the barest suggestion of a girl's shape, the only detail in the depiction a sweep of golden hair.
"A ghost?" one of the girls ventured.
Mayan smiled again. "We don't really know," she admitted, turning to face the fresco directly opposite that of Ironheart. "We know a little more about them," she said, grinning at the girls. Someone ALWAYS recognized this one instantly--
Vena didn't disappoint her. "Oh---" she whispered. "It's Flashfire and Shadowdancer, isn't it?"
They always go for the romantic legends, Mayan thought with a chuckle, unable to help feeling a certain warmth herself as she studied the fresco. A woman, little more than a girl to judge by her carefree smile, was shown leaping through a wall. Beyond, a dark figure waited for her, kneeling down beside a small pile of wood, setting fire to it with glowing knives. Mayan blushed, remembering when she'd stood in front of an almost identical fresco as a child, and asked her mother, quite innocently, why Shadowdancer looked like she couldn't wait to reach Flashfire.
"It is," she said to Vena.
Ruven made a face. "Mooky stuff--ouch!" he complained, when Vena swatted him, glowering indignantly.
"No hitting, children," Mayan said patiently. Ordinarily, she would have disciplined them both, but considering the day, she was minded to be lenient. "Let's move along."
They passed the Walker in Darkness, a few of the students shivered at those glowing golden eyes that seemed to bore right into you. The older girls were suitably impressed by the Frost Queen. Mayan had always thought that the ice-blond beauty the image depicted was too perfect to be real. But then, that could just have been lingering childhood envy, she reflected with a faraway sort of amusement.
She deemed the Hunter worthy of more attention. Stopping in front of it, she saw one of the girls shiver. "What is it, Lysa?" she asked gently.
"I--just don't like him," Lysa said planitively. "He's frightening. Half his face looks human, but the other half's some kind of animal. And those CLAWS--"
Mayan sized up the image dispassionately. She supposed it was frightening, the two faces of the Hunter. "But what do you think it means, Lysa? Any of you?" No one answered. "I always thought it was meant to show us that we have a choice. To be animals, to fight and kill for our own needs without thinking, without feeling anything for our fellow creatures--or to be more than that."
"He doesn't look happy," Ruven volunteered.
He really didn't, Mayan thought, not for the first time. "Yes," she said slowly, studying that tortured face. "The choice isn't an easy one." And there were those, like the Polarity, who still took the wrong path. Before anyone could bring up the point--a few of these children were too astute for their own good, sometimes--she moved on.
Lady Butterfly--a strange name, she had always thought. No one knew what a 'butterfly' was, anymore. The icon showed a purple-haired woman, arms spread wide as if to embrace the world, streams of light stretching away from her in strange, beautiful patterns. The odd thing was that there was a second image in the picture, a shadow at the very edge, a woman perhaps, carrying some sort of sword. Mayan had always thought that the shadow was waiting for something, just from the sense of tension the artist had managed to portray.
"She looks like she wants to fly, teacher," one of the girls volunteered.
"Yes, she does, doesn't she, Salis? Which makes her very much like him. Perhaps that's why they're always placed side by side."
The Angel, white wings glowing in the sun as he hovered above a lake. The lake was like a mirror, reflecting a different angel, one with wings that looked like metal, and skin as blue as the sky.
"How come there're two of him? Is he like the Hunter?"
"Well, what do you think, Ruven?"
Mayan laid a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right if you can't think of a reason right away," she said.
"I'll think about it some more, teacher," he promised.
Onwards, to the Ice Prince. She'd seen icons where he was depicted with the Frost Queen, for whatever reason, but here, he was alone, a man of crystal on a background of white, the icon so brilliant it was almost blinding.
The Singers, a man and a young woman with sunfire hair, dressed in robes of gold and green, dancing in the air above a land that seemed carved of pure emerald.
"They're pretty," Lysa said. "Why so much green, though?"
Mayan smiled. "They're the patron icons of the Gaesh chapterhouses," she said. "Their homeland used to be called the Green Island, a very long time ago."
More of them, icon after icon as they made their way down the hall.
The Black Prince of the Sun.
The Girl of Bones.
The Lady of the Winds, silver hair streaming around her as lighting lashed out from her fingertips.
The Woman of a Thousand Faces. An odd name, Mayan reflected, since the slender woman in green depicted in the icon had no face at all, merely the outline of one below dark hair streaked with white.
The Healers, a dark woman, her form surrounded by a faint suggestion of light, and an enormous, blue-furred man, those remarkably kind eyes in that bestial face. And the children, surrounding them, smiling, countless children, filling the rest of the image.
The Ruby Knight, all in gold, save for the red shield over his face. A strong, noble figure by anyone's definition. Mayan smiled faintly, remembering all those long debates over the meaning of the crossed swords the Knight held.
The Firebird. As always, it took her breath away. Whatever the artist had used to produce the bird-shaped nimbus of fire that surrounded the red-haired woman, it looked like it was literally aflame. And the woman's face--proud and stern and yet somehow so loving at the same time.
And then, at the end of the hall, Xavier himself. More stylized than the rest--less alive, somehow. Only his eyes, those knowing, penetrating eyes that seemed to look right into your heart.
A small hand reached out, taking hers. "Do you think he's watching us?" Vena asked in a tiny voice. "Will he protect us?"
Mayan could have wept at the question. Control, control, she told herself desperately. "He was only a man, Vena," she reminded the girl, and her other students, gently. Mildly. "Just a man, who believed what we believed. But as for whether or not he's watching us--" She squeezed Vena's hand. "I hope so."
She would have said more, but the pulsating scream of the alert siren began to sound. Almost immediately, the empathic atmosphere spiked, and Mayan couldn't quite hold back a gasp. Bright Lady, she thought, her heart thudding sickly in her chest. So soon?
Her students were almost as quick to react, beginning to panic. "Teacher?" Vena moaned, her eyes huge in her ashen face.
"It's all right," she started, trying to pull herself together so that she could comfort them, but the sound of the door sliding open at the other end of the Hall jolted her, disrupting her concentration. She turned, her heart sinking into the pit of her stomach as she saw Rania, one of the proctors of the chapterhouse, hurrying towards them. Rania's expression was calm, resolutely so, but energy was crackling away from her slender form. Rania, who usually had exquisite control over her bio-electric power.
What her empathy was telling her was only confirmation. And in that moment, sensing Rania's fear and sense of helplessness, knowing what the situation must be, Mayan came to a decision that surprised even herself.
"Children," Mayan said as calmly as she could. Through the open door, she could hear the disembodied voice of one of the other proctors, instructing everyone to move quickly and calmly to the shelter. "I think you should go with Rania now. She's going to take you down to one of the sublevels for a while." She reached out with her gift, exerting all her strength to soothe them. "Rania," she said, beads of sweat standing out on her forehead as she completed the delicate empathic weave and tied it off. "You may want to take them down the back way." Away from the windows, she meant--and away from any disturbing sights that might be outside. Even an empathic work of such complexity could be undone by the sheer force of panic.
Rania looked appalled. "Mayan, you ARE coming--"
"No," Mayan said softly, stepping forward and embracing the woman. "Either this will end well, or it will not," she whispered softly in the woman's ear. "And either way, it will end for me here."
A ridiculous decision, really. Foolish. Reckless. More or less suicidal, to be perfectly honest.
But it felt right. Looking around at the Hall, at the icons she loved, the living history that turned the walls into mirrors of the past, of everything she and everyone she cared about believed in, she realized something.
She couldn't leave.
Rania suddenly blinked, rapidly, clearly trying to hold back tears. "All right," she said hoarsely, looking around at the Hall. Mayan smiled faintly as she felt the other woman's sudden, reluctant understanding. "We'll wait for you, if you change your mind. As long as we can."
"Be well," Mayan whispered, smiling at her students as Rania hustled them out of the Hall. The door slid shut behind them, leaving Mayan in silence. But not alone.
She looked up as a shadow passed over the Hall. One of the militia's air defense craft, she registered distantly. No match at all for a Polarity airship, of course. The shadow was gone as quickly as it had come, and the sunlight continued to stream into the Hall.
For how long? Mayan decided not to wonder. She sat down in the corner, drawing her knees up to her chest. Her thoughts strayed to her students and her colleagues, all crowding into the shelter.
Another shadow passed over the sun.
This was not such a wonderful idea, Mayan, her conscience pointed out sardonically. She laughed softly, her eyes stinging. But she didn't get up. She felt as if she was riveted to the spot, frozen as her people's history swirled around her, a dream cast in vivid color as it started to fall into dust.
Who would remember all of this, if the worst happened, if the Polarity razed every chapterhouse and the Xavier Collective became nothing but a distant, fading memory? She knew some of the other chapterhouses had made arrangements to send their records elsewhere, to hide them. She didn't know where, what safe places they might have found. But perhaps something would be saved, from all of this. It was enough to give her a little hope. Only a little, a weak flicker of light against the darkness that had grown inside her for all these weeks, the shadow on her heart she had tried to deny.
Something might be saved, but nothing from here, nothing from her home. Madrina's chapterhouse had nothing but these icons. Too fragile to be removed, any longer, even if there was anyplace safe to take them.
A marriage of beauty and memory.
About to be lost, forever.
Her eyes continued to sting, her vision to blur as hot tears rolled down her cheeks. Why? Why did this make her weep when she'd managed to retain control, to shut away all the pain for all these weeks? It should be the knowledge of the lives that were about to be lost that made her inner walls break. To mourn for inanimate objects, mere paintings that had no consciousness to engage her empathy--
The chapterhouse shook, the echo of a nearby explosion booming in her ears. Mayan continued to weep, as more shadows disrupted the sunlight, more of the small defense craft going out to face an unbeatable foe. Tendrils of pain and terrors lashed out at her, growing more intense by the moment, and more explosions sounded in the distance.
The city was dying.
Another explosion, this one too close. Mayan screamed and shielded her head as the plasglass of the ceiling shattered, coming crashing down. Something struck her on the shoulder, numbing it briefly. She looked up, blinking dazedly, and then shrieked again as she saw the icon of Xavier laying in pieces on the floor. It felt like someone had just stabbed her in the heart.
No--this can't be happening, it isn't real-- The siren was louder, now, with the Hall open to the air. More explosions, in the distance and closer. Screaming.
It was real. And all the emotions she had locked away for so long came flooding out, and she huddled in the corner, weeping, until she smelled smoke.
Burning, Mayan thought hazily, rubbing her injured shoulder. Her hand came away bloody, but she didn't notice. Her eyes were fixed on the icon directly across from her, as yet undamaged. She had always wondered why it was here, the closest to Xavier on that side, even as the Firebird was, behind her. What importance it had, that had been forgotten. So much forgotten, she thought dazedly. So much had been lost, would be lost--was in the process of being lost.
There were two figures in the image. One, a white-haired man of powerful build, watching another, a younger, sun-haired man walk off into a brilliant sunrise. Dayspring and the Torchbearer, it was called. Something to do with hope and the passing of it to a new generation, all the scholars who studied the iconography claimed.
You couldn't see the Torchbearer's face, his back was to the viewer. But his posture was proud, unafraid. Dayspring was depicted as raising a hand, in farewell--or perhaps to call him back? Mayan wondered, for the first time.
A new insight. One she could never share with her colleagues at the evening meal. No more laughing, enthusiastic debates that lasted long into the night.
No more icons, to be debated.
A darker, more malignant shadow blocked out the sun. She looked up, staring directly at a Polarity airship, and then forced herself to look away, back at the icon, her eyes fixing almost involuntarily on Dayspring's face.
Strange--it had always seemed so strange. A figure meant to represent hope should be happy. And while there was a faint, curiously enigmatic smile on Dayspring's face, his eyes were full of the most terrible sadness Mayan could imagine.
The smell of smoke grew stronger. The roar of the airship's thrusters was almost deafening.
She wondered, distantly, if icons could weep.
It was her last thought, as white
light annihilated her world.
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