Xavier hurried along the path to the girls' dorm, cursing the weakness of his legs that still prevented him from running. He still had to support himself with a cane when he walked. He wished that the other X-Men were here to aid him, but they were all away on various assignments, or recuperating in the infirmary, leaving his student charges in his care and his alone.
And one of those charges was going to die if he could not find some way to pick up his pace.
Logan's message had been quite succinct. Subject K32, the Russian mutant with the ability to kill using a target's memories, had a younger sister and that sister had the same powers he did. And while K32 had now been subdued by his X-Men, the sister - Anna - remained at large. She had been on the run since she and her brother had escaped from the Russian containment facility. There was no evidence to suggest that she displayed the same psychotic tendencies as her brother, but Xavier did not believe in taking chances.
It had been Kurt who had suggested the Anna might have taken refuge within the school. He remembered Paige Guthrie mentioning something to him regarding ghosts and hallucinations. Now that he knew what he was looking for, it had been a moment's work for Xavier to mentally confirm Anna's presence on the school grounds. Worse, she was approaching Paige's position.
He had attempted to warn Paige telepathically, of course, but whatever power the Russians used it interfered with psionics in the same way it distorted the readings of Logan's hypersenses.
Which left Xavier with no alternative but to try and reach Paige the old-fashioned way.
These were the thoughts going through Charles Xavier's mind when Paige Guthrie was thrown out throw the wall of the girls' dormitory.
* * *
Paige had to think fast. Thankfully, all those long hours spent in the Biosphere back at the Massachusetts Academy had paid off. She tore at her clothes, at her skin, at her flesh and ripped it all away, letting it flutter to the ground like dry leaves in Fall. Beneath all those layers she reached stone and then stone was tough enough to withstand a fall from four-storeys up.
The impact still knocked the breath from her, though.
'Paige, are you all right?' Xavier called to her.
'I'll live, Professor,' Paige assured him. 'Just a little winded, is all.'
'And the girl? Anna?' Xavier asked.
'What girl?' Paige inquired. 'The only person I've seen is Everett.'
'Everett?' Xavier repeated and his heart skipped a beat. Of all the possible mutants Anna could have manifested, Everett was perhaps the worse. Code-named Synch, Everett Thomas was possessed of a synchronistic aura that allowed him to lock on to the powers of nearby mutants and to duplicate them, often improving on them. In the midst of a school full of mutants, his raw power would be phenomenal.
'Paige, we have to get out of here,' Xavier ordered. 'Perhaps if we gather the students in the Danger Room we might be safe until'
'Until what, Professor?' Everett asked. He was hovering in the air above them, green energy enveloping his hands. 'Until you're all dead, just like me?'
He raised one hand and a bolt of emerald energy arced in Xavier's direction.
* * *
Xavier dived out of the way as the blast tore up the ground around him. Clods of earth flew into the air and came to rest on top of him. A lump of dirt landed on the back of his neck and trickled down beneath the collar of his jacket.
'Need a hand up,' a woman asked in a soft Scots brogue.
Xavier glanced up.
Moira McTaggert smiled down at him.
* * *
'Wanna play some more, Paige?' Everett asked.
'You're not real,' Paige muttered to herself. 'You're a figment of my imagination.'
'I'm a figment, am I, Paige?' Everett asked. 'Tell me, could a figment punch you through a wall? Could a figment do this?'
Spines appeared along Everett's left forearm. He swung the arm round and the spikes shot out like a flurry of arrows in Paige's direction. She shielded her eyes as the spines shattered on impact with her stone body, but the still hurt.
There was an ornamental fountain in the garden, topped by a statue of an angel. Paige picked up the angel and threw it up at Everett. He laughed as his body became insubstantial and the statue flew straight threw him, smashing against the side of the dormitory building.
Brute force clearly was not going to win this fight so Paige turned and ran.
She rounded the dorm building and crossed on to the basketball court.
We've been here before, she thought. Now what?
Think fast, she told herself. If brawn won't work then it's time to engage brain.
'Everybody clear the court,' she ordered.
The players stared at her blankly, but then Everett rounded the corner after her, firing lightning bolts alternately from each eye.
'What more incentive do you need people?' Paige demanded. 'Now move!'
The basketball players ran.
Paige stepped on to the court.
'Emergency override code Delta-7, Gamma-9. Ident: Guthrie, P.,' Paige declared.
The floor of the court began to move. A crack formed in the middle running the length of the court as the two halves began to move apart. A basketball rolled across the ground before falling through the ever-widening gap.
As soon as she judged that the two halves had parted enough, Paige jumped down through the gap.
* * *
'You could have saved me, Charles,' Moira was saying. 'You could have saved me and you didn't.'
'I tried, Moira,' Xavier told her. 'I tried so hard. I just didn't have the strength.'
'You have the most powerful mind on the planet, Charles,' Moira persisted. 'Do you really think that there is anything you cannot accomplish if you really want it? I guess you just didn't want me badly enough.'
'That's not true, Moira,' Xavier insisted. 'You know it's not true.'
'What I know,' Moira said, bending down to pick up Xavier's cane, 'is that I'm dead while you're still very much alive.'
'When you died, Moira, I wanted so very much to join you,' Xavier admitted. 'For a long time I didn't think my life worth living if I had to live it without you.'
'Well, that's an oversight that can easily be remedied,' Moira assured him before bringing the cane down hard across his back.
Xavier cried out in pain, rolling onto his side and trying to use his arms to ward of a second blow. He felt something in his wrist snap as the cane came down again.
'Moira,' he pleaded, 'please don't do this.'
'I thought this was what you wanted, Charles,' Moira sneered as she struck the side of his skull. 'This way we can be together foreverin the cold embrace of death.'
Xavier curled up in a foetal ball as Moira continued to rain blows down upon him.
'Moira, please forgive me,' he whispered and he allowed his consciousness to slip away from his physical form.
* * *
Paige landed in a crouch on the hangar floor. As she had hoped, there was still one X-Jet present. She was about to run towards it when she heard screaming up above. One of the basketball players had not cleared the court in time and was hanging on to one of the edges by her fingertips. Paige watched as the girl's grip weakened and she dropped to the ground, landing with a painful thud.
Paige raced across to her.
'Are you okay?' she asked.
'I think I've twisted something,' the girl complained.
Paige supported her as she got to her feet.
'Come on, let's get you aboard,' Paige said, half carrying the limping girl up the ramp and into the X-Jet.
'You can't hide from me in there, Paige,' Everett said as he descended into the hangar.
'Who said anything about hiding,' Paige commented as she slid into the pilot seat. 'Try these on for size, 'Everett'!'
Paige launched two stinger missiles straight at her former team-mate.
'Harsh,' the female basketball player remarked.
'Yeah, well I've been having a crappy day,' Paige told her.
As the smoke cleared, Paige could see Everett picking himself up off the floor.
'Guess you think that was kinda clever, huh?' he said.
'That was the general idea,' Paige muttered. 'Now let's see how you like a second dose.'
'Paige, you must listen to me,' Xavier said.
'Professor, how did you get here?' Paige asked.
'It's my astral form only,' Xavier admitted. 'My physical body is otherwise occupied so I'm afraid I shall be of limited use to you.'
'Well, any advice you're prepared to give at this point would be greatly appreciated, sir,' Paige told him.
'These 'ghosts' are the creations of a mutant named Anna,' Xavier informed Paige. 'If you can stop her then I believe all of these manifestations will lose their coherency. She's down here with you somewhere, but she's distorting your perceptions so that you cannot locate her. Now if you can only come up with a method of flushing her out'
'In that case,' Paige remarked, adjusting the controls, 'let's see how our uninvited guest likes a taste of this.'
Two more missiles shot out from the X-Jet, but these streaked passed Everett, impacting the wall beyond.
'Ha, you missed me,' Everett taunted her.
'I wasn't aiming for you, moron,' Paige muttered. 'Computer, seal doors and vents.'
White gas began to flood the hangar.
'What did you do?' the other girl asked Paige.
'Filled the room with tear gas,' Paige told her. 'This should ruin Anna's day, always assuming she doesn't have filtered lungs, of course.'
'Filtered lungs,' the girl asked. 'Is that even possible?'
'You haven't been at this school very long, have you?' Paige remarked. 'Look, there are some gas masks in that locker over there. Let's go and see what out mystery intruder looks like.'
'You'd be surprised,' the basketball player murmured.
'Sorry?' Paige asked.
'Nothing,' the other girl responded hurriedly. 'Well, aren't we going to see what's out there?'
'Sure, just stay behind me, okay.'
The two girls descended on to the hangar floor. The gas was dissipating through the open ceiling, but there was still a fine white mist obscuring their vision.
'What's that over there?' Basketball-player said, pointing.
They hurried over in the direction of the shape.
A girl in combat fatigues was doubled over, tears streaming from her eyes.
She spat something at the girls in Russian.
'I'm sorry,' Paige told her, 'I don't understand you.'
'She told you to stay away,' Everett told her. He seemed less solid than before - Paige suspected that Anna was having trouble maintaining the image. 'I'm here to make sure that you do.'
Paige took a step forward and Everett placed a hand on her chest, firmly obstructing her progress.
'I mean it, Paige,' he said.
'Listen, Everett,' she began, 'I know this isn't really you. But I also know that you've been created, at least in part, from my memories. So I guess this gives me a chance to say something I never really got the chance to say before. I miss you, Ev. You were always the moral centre of the group, the straight-up guy that kept the rest of us in line. I mean, I didn't have a crush on you like Jubilee or Monet, but I liked you. A lot. And I think it's a tragic waste that you died when you did.
'But you died saving lives and that's how the Everett Thomas I know would have wanted to go. Don't think I haven't replayed that moment a thousand times in my head wondering if there was something I could have done differently that might have saved you. There wasn't. I'm resigned to that fact now. I've dealt with it and I've moved on. And it's time you moved on, too.
Paige took another step forward and Everett dispersed around her like smoke.
Anna looked up at her, beseechingly.
'I'm sorry, Anna,' Paige said, 'but your ghosts have no power over me anymore.'
'That's reassuring to know, Paige,' Basketball-player said. 'Now step away from the girl.'
'What are you talking about?' Paige asked as she turned around.
'She's coming with me.'
Basketball-player was growing before Paige's eyes. Her dark hair was becoming redder and her skin was taking on a blue tint. And she was holding a very large gun.
'Mystique,' Paige said once the morph was complete.
'It's always gratifying to be recognised,' Mystique replied. 'Now, as I was saying, Anna is coming with me. My little Brotherhood has run your X-Men a merry chase with regard to the girl's brother, but he was never the true prize. His mental problems made him completely unsuitable for my cause. But this one, why she's just waiting to be moulded to my purpose.'
'I won't let you take her,' Paige insisted.
'And how, pray, do you intend to stop me?' Mystique asked. 'Believe me, this laser will happily burn through the granite of which you are currently composed.'
'What about diamond, darling?' another voice asked.
As Mystique turned round, a diamond fist connected with her face.
'Remember what I said to you about physical violence always being the last resort?' Emma Frost asked Paige. 'I'm beginning to revise my opinion. That was fun.'
'I'm so glad you're enjoying yourself,' Paige replied.
'Sarcasm, however, remains the lowest form of wit,' she remarked. 'Sorry I took so long getting here, darling. Minor crisis in Morocco, but that's all sorted now.'
Emma Frost crouched down to examine Anna.
'Now what have we here, child,' she said. 'Now, now, don't go trying to use your ghost powers on me, dear. I assure you that I am quite impervious to all forms of psychic attack while in this state. And my protégé over there has already shown that she is quite capable of resisting you.'
'Your protégé,' Paige began. 'Since when?'
'Shush, darling,' Emma said. 'Having said all that, Anna, I don't believe you really want to hurt anyone. I think you're just a frightened little girl, terrified of the world around you and looking for a place where you can be safe. Well, here's the thing: you've found it, darling. Thta's why you came here, wasn't it? Because you thought you might find help here. So why don't you come right over here and tell Auntie Emma all about it, hm?'
Emma stretched out a sparkling hand.
Anna looked at it fearfully.
Then, gingerly, she placed her own hand in Emma's and Emma gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Anna ran across the gap between them and threw her arms around Emma's neck, sobbing into her shoulder.
'There, there, child,' Emma said softly. 'That's the way. Let it all out. Nobody is going to hurt you anymore. I promise.'
Emma Frost looked over the child and met Paige's eyes.
'And you, dear, can tell Charles that he owes me substantially for this one.'
* * *
'So what are we going to do about Nikolai?' Logan asked.
He and Xavier were strolling along the banks of Graymalkin Lake. The sun was setting on the horizon and the water was tinted orange and yellow.
'I've placed him in a containment unit until we can figure out an answer to that question,' Xavier replied. 'Nikolai is quite unbalanced. It's entirely possible that his treatment at the hands of the KGB is to blame, but I suspect that he was unstable long before they pressed him into service. Until I can find a way to treat his mind, controlling his powers is completely out of the question.'
'And Anna?' Logan inquired. 'Kid like that doesn't deserve to be caught up in this mess.'
'How very true,' Xavier agreed. 'Her I'm more hopeful about. Her experiences have scarred her, true, but I've had a number of therapy sessions with her already and she's making remarkable progress. In time, I think she might become a valuable part of this school. Assuming, of course, that she can find away to put the past behind her.'
'That's never easy, Charles,' Logan said. 'Take it from one who knows.'
'I know, Logan,' Xavier said, 'but it's an effort well spent. Change is brewing and we must be prepared to change with it, not dwell on what once was. We live in interesting times, my friend.'
'You know, Charles,' Logan commented, 'the Chinese consider that a curse.'
Xavier smiled grimly.
'And who's to say they're wrong.'