Okay people, here's the deal: I'm getting really, really tired of doing all these accents. So unless it will absolutely break your little hearts for me to stop, I ain't doin' 'em anymore! Kay? Good! (Oh, and I made this decision about halfway through the chapter, so there will still be some accents up to that point.) Now I may still add the occasional accented word or two if I think it's needed, but otherwise, they're done. Oh, and I noticed that I sort of invented Jennsen's accent after I had introduced her, so technically hers shouldn't even exist! Anyhoo, just thought I'd letcha know!
By the way, this chapter probably would've been up sooner, but The Last Ronin challenged me to make it 41+ pages, so blame him. \(^_^)/ …Just don't kill him. I'd like to see how his story ends. ^_-
Pandemonium. That was the only way to describe it—sheer pandemonium. Arguments had sprung up all over the room, with everyone voicing their opinions as loudly as possible. Yes they should help fight L'Kal, no it wasn't their business; it was their duty as X-Men, but they were needed here more; Rogue had a responsibility as Savior, except there wasn't any proof that Rogue was the Savior—it was never-ending.
Rogue sat silently in her chair as she listened to all the people arguing over weather or not she was really some special hero. It was getting a bit annoying to hear everyone talking about her as if she weren't there, but there wasn't much she could do about it. So she listened, instead.
Jennsen was emphatically explaining that, as the Savior, Rogue had to help her people. The twins were backing her up, saying that the X-Men had a duty to protect people from tyranny. Xavier was trying to tell them that it wasn't as simple as that. They couldn't just pack up and leave on a whim. Logan brought up the issue of home defense—mainly, who would do their job if they went to help Jennsen?
Evan and Kurt were both arguing in favor of going, probably because they wanted to boldly go where no mutants had gone before. Rogue doubted that they were seriously thinking about what they were trying to accomplish.
Hank and Kitty seemed to be somewhat neutral, with Hank wanting to find proof that Rogue was the Savior before doing anything else, and Kitty trying to get everyone else to stop arguing. It was a futile attempt.
Rogue sighed and leaned back in her chair. They were down in the briefing room, seated around a long oval table with the Professor at its head. Actually, she and the Professor were basically the only one's still sitting; everyone else was standing up and yelling. Rogue yawned. As she moved, light reflected off the Amulet sitting in the center of the table. She drummed her fingers on the wood, glancing at her watch occasionally. This had been going on for close to twenty minutes.
That was about fifteen minutes to many.
Rogue stood up, unconsciously slipping into her role as an Agent. She cleared her throat loudly. No one noticed.
"Excuse me," she said in a voice loud enough to be heard over the din. Heads turned to glance at her. She gave them a cold smile. "Hi, remember me? The person y'all've spent the last half-hour arguing over? Well Ah'm getting' a bit bored, so how 'bout sittin' down so we can discuss this properly, hmm?" The glare she gave all of them killed any ideas of protesting. "Thank ya," she said once they had all returned grudgingly to their seats. She remained standing.
"Here's the deal: Ah am the Savior. You heard the Prophecy. Ah fit all the requirements. Ah understand Jennsen's language, even though Ah've never heard it before."
Hank shook his head. "That is undoubtedly a highly remarkable feat, however is does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are the one of whom the Prophecy spoke. Coincidences do happen, albeit rarely."
"There's also the ghosts."
Rogue took a deep breath. She had been forthcoming with everything else—her CIA history, her little excursion into her mind and the writing she'd found there, the hunt for the Eye, then the Keystone, her first encounter with Gambit (which had been met with a triumphant shout from the Cajun saying that he knew he was right), everything. Except the ghosts.
"Gambit, remember when you crashed the Prof's car?"
He grinned impishly. "How could I forget?"
"And remember when Ah, er, fell asleep?"
He nodded. Logan growled.
"It was past midnight, all right?" she snapped. "Anyhow, that night Ah had this really weird dream. It was all black, and there were these people, these ghosts, there. They were talking in another language," she pointed at Jennsen, "her language, and Ah couldn't understand 'em."
"Hold up," Scott broke in, "I thought you said you could understand it?"
"Ah couldn't then. Don't ask; Ah don't get it either. The point is one of them said that Ah was the Savior—in English, mind you. He told me that they were the ghost of Saviors past, and I was the Savior of the present."
Evan laughed. "I think you've seen A Christmas Carol to many times."
"Yeah, like, how do you know it wasn't just a dream?"
" 'Cause that was the first time Ah heard the words 'Tir sun de Ausierre um colt leer'—you are the savior of the present."
"Well I am convinced," Jennsen said simply. "So, Ausierre, what are you going to do?"
Rogue dropped down into her seat. "Ah have no freakin' idea."
Gambit grinned. "Dat's why you have us, no?" He turned to Xavier. "What you t'ink, Professor?"
The man pondered for a moment before replying. "On the one hand, I believe that we have a duty to help Jennsen and her people. But on the other hand, I'm not sure we are ready to go into a full-scale war. There are only so many of us, after all."
"Not to mention the issue of home defense," Logan added. "We can't all go; that would be to dangerous. But if we only send a few people, then we'll have even less chance of making any impact."
"Vell vhat about ze New Mutants? Couldn't zey stay behind and handle thing here?"
"I doubt it, Elf. We give them free reign of the mansion and it'll be up in flames by the end of the day, I guarantee it."
"Ja, I guess so."
"But we can't, like, abandon them just because of this," Kitty said. "It would be totally unfair."
"Ah have no intention of abandonin' anyone."
Jennsen's face brightened. "So you will help us?"
"You have no idea what zis means to me. What it will mean to my people. Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. Ah still don't have a clue about what to do."
"I have an idea," Scott said. "Let's go to sleep and talk about this in the morning."
There was a chorus of "agreed," and everyone started heading off to their rooms.
"Wait, what about us?" Dan asked.
Xavier waved Kurt over. "Show them the spare bedrooms, please."
"Sure, Professor." He led them out of the room. Rogue stayed behind, waiting until she and Xavier were the only ones left.
"There something you want?" he asked.
"Ah think Ah may be getting in over mah head."
"And what makes you say that?"
"You were here. You saw how Jennsen was looking at me. She thinks that Ah'm gonna show up, say a few magic words, and suddenly everything will be right again. But Ah can't do that. Ah can't stop a war."
"You don't think you can make a difference." It was not a question.
"Not like she wants. Ah'm just one person."
He smiled knowingly. "I'm just one person, too. Look what I've done, I've founded the X-Men. I've created a safe haven for mutants so that they won't be shunned by those around them. I've helped made the world more tolerant towards mutants."
"That's different. You didn't do all of it on yer own, we helped a lot."
"And there will be people helping you. You will still have all of us to back you up, along with the people of Ben-Tari. No one expects you to do this alone."
Rogue sighed. As much sense as he was making, Xavier's words didn't help much. She couldn't shake the feeling that she was setting everyone up for a huge disappointment.
"Ah s'pose yer right. Ah'm probably just overreacting." She laughed. You know, you'd think that with everything Ah've had to do as an agent, this wouldn't be that big a deal."
"I'm still trying to get used to the idea of you, Kitty, and Kurt all walking around with guns and badges."
"We don't always carry guns."
"I suppose not."
"Sometimes we carry explosives."
He paused. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
She smiled. That didn't seem to reassure him at all. Small wonder, considering how rare it was for Rogue to wear any expression other than anger or boredom.
"Ah should get some sleep. G'night, Professor." She started for the door.
"Before you go, may ask you one small question?"
"You can ask, but that doesn't mean Ah'll answer."
"So what do you want to know?"
"Were you ever planning to tell us that you work for the CIA?"
Leave it to Xavier to ask the hard questions. She had been expecting him to ask about how long she'd been an agent, or what kind of work she did. She was ready to tell him about Project Marvel, her training, or give some vague explanation of her missions. Rogue was prepared to explain her reasons for recruiting Kurt and Kitty instead of Logan or Jean or even the Professor himself. Those were all fairly easy questions. This one would be very difficult to answer.
Did she even know the answer?
Sure she had always thought about telling them the truth, but it always seemed like more of a fantasy than anything else. The CIA didn't exactly encourage its employees to reveal themselves. Blowing her cover had never been an issue.
The Professor watched her, waiting. She decided to tell him the truth.
"Ah don't know. Eventually Ah might have, but Ah'm not sure."
"I understand. Good night, Rogue."
" 'Night." She opened the door and slipped out.
Rogue could here Kitty's snores even before she opened the door to their room. The girl was sprawled over her bed, dead to the world. Rogue would have liked nothing more than to fall onto her own bed and go to sleep, but she had work to do first. She sat down at the desk, pulling open the laptop. A yawn escaped her lips as she waited for the email to load.
You have one new message.
She had better things to do than read letters, but decided to take a quick look at it incase it was from O'Connell. A glance at the subject bar proved that it was.
Special Agent Rogue:
It has come to our attention that in the past hour you have engaged in several questionable activities. Report to headquarters at once to explain yourself.
Well at least he had saved her the trouble of writing the letter. She knew they would find out what she had told everyone via the bugs planted all over the house (by her own hand, no less), but she hadn't expected it to be this soon. That was her reason for wanting to write an email—to explain things.
Judging from the letter, however, it looked like they would settle for nothing less than a face-to-face discussion. O'Connell might as well have said, "Get your sorry butt down here right freaking now or else."
Rogue was in no mood to inquire about the "or else." She took a few seconds to change into her jeans and a shirt, then scrawled a quick note saying that she had been called away on business and would be back soon. Hopefully she would be home before anyone knew she was missing. She propped the note op against the lamp, where Kitty would be sure to see it.
Rogue was about to go out her usual way, down the balcony, when she realized that she didn't need to sneak out for once. She headed for the door instead.
The mansion was eerily quiet. Everyone had gone off to bed awhile ago. Moonlight poured through the windows, casting long shadows on the floor. Rogue stepped softly, not wanting to wake anyone. Just because she wasn't going to get any rest this night didn't mean the others shouldn't be able to.
Rogue made her way across the living room slowly, not wanting to bump any furniture. She was almost to the door when a voice stopped her.
She turned to face Logan.
"Ah have some things to take care of."
"What kind of things?"
"Ah'll explain later." She started once more for the door. He caught her arm.
"There a reason this can't wait until daylight?"
"Are you going to tell me what it is?"
She shook her head. "Sorry, but Ah can't. Y' know, classified information an' all that government stuff."
He nodded. "I understand. But don't be gone too long if you can help it, okay? You could use some sleep."
Rogue laughed, reaching up to brush a wisp of white hair out of her face. Her bare fingers touched her forehead, making her smile. The feel of skin, even her own, was amazing.
"Logan, Ah once went on a string o' missions four nights in a row. Ah didn't get more'n about six hours asleep that whole week."
He eyed her incredulously. "And when did this happen?"
"About two weeks before Ah went ta Moscow."
Logan blanched visibly. "You went where?"
"Ah really should get goin. Bye, Logan."
She slipped out the door before he could say another word.
Rogue didn't waste any time getting to the briefing room. Despite the late hour, Headquarters was buzzing with activity, as usual. She wondered if the lights overhead ever got turned off. Probably not. As she pushed open the door of the briefing room, an even bigger question came to mind: how much trouble was she in?
A lot, apparently.
O'Connell was sitting at the head of the table. To each side of him were four men and two women, whom she had never met. Still, she knew exactly who they were: The Collective.
They ran Headquarters.
This is bad, Rogue thought.
She took the only available seat across from O'Connell.
"Nice of you to join us. Everyone, may I introduce Special Agent Rogue." He named all of the others, but Rogue didn't pay much attention. When he was done, one of the women began speaking.
"I take it you know why we are here?"
"Would you mind explaining, then, why you decided to reveal classified information to civilians?"
"Ah didn't have much choice. The Prophecy from the Eye of Polyphemus is coming true."
"And what makes you say that?"
"Tonight a girl came to the mansion askin' the X-Men fer help. She's from another world. She came through a portal, a 'swirling gate.' We've already decided that the Prophecy's about me, right? Ah didn't see any reason not to tell them."
This time it was a man who spoke. "None of this excuses you from revealing top-secret information without authorization. You should have requested clearance."
"Would you have granted it?" Rogue fought to keep her anger down. It wouldn't do any good to make them mad at her. Right now they seemed to be in a fairly reasonable mood. She wanted them to stay that way.
"Weather or not we would have deemed the situation important enough to warrant divulging this information is not the issue. The fact is that you acted without authorization."
"Ah know, but it's not that simple. Those people showed up scared for their lives, Ah—"
"People? A minute ago it was just a girl."
"The girl was the only one from the other world. The other two are just normal people who got caught up in all of this."
"Which means," the other woman began, "we now have two potentially serious leaks."
"They're staying at the mansion, which ya'll are obviously monitoring very closely, so Ah doubt that they'll be a problem."
"And what about you? We can't have agents who go around revealing information about this Agency without our consent."
Rogue sighed. "It's not like Ah told them everything. Ah only told them things that were relevant. Ah explained about the Eye and the Prophecy, that's it. Nothing else."
"Yet." The woman turned to the man closest to Rogue. "Agent Higgs, what is you opinion?"
Agent Higgs eyed Rogue in a way that reminded her of someone appraising a piece of meat.
"I would like to know why she thinks she is important enough to be part of the Prophecy."
O'Connell spoke up quickly, before Rogue could say anything. "Actually, sir, having reviewed the Prophecy at length, I believe is in fact the person mentioned."
Agent Higgs glared at him. "Is that so? And you are basing this on what, exactly?"
"Well, sir, first off no one knows her name, like in the Prophecy, and she has the white streak in her hair, like a cloud, and now there's this business with the Jennsen girl."
"I see." He turned his appraising gaze back to Rogue. "So you think this warrants the braking of federal laws?"
"Yes or no, Agent Rogue?"
"Not by itself, no, but—"
"Then would you please explain to me why there are over half a dozen people who now know highly classified information?"
"Ah know it sounds bad, but ya see—"
"Do you think the rules don't apply to you?"
"Of course not. Ah—"
"They why aren't you following them?
Rogue was getting fed up with him talking over her. "It's more complicated than you think."
"Then please, enlighten us."
"Jennsen's people are at war."
This was obviously news to everyone. The Collective exchanged glances.
"They came ta get our help," Rogue explained.
"Define 'our.'" This time it was the man next to O'Connell who spoke.
"The X-Men. We agreed to help 'em, if we could."
"I hear a 'but' coming," the man said.
"Well, it turned out to be even more complicated. See, Jennsen is supposed to guard this Amulet, until she finds the person it belongs to."
"So we're pretty sure it belongs to me, which means Ah'm some sort of spiritual leader, or something. Ah don't really know the details. But Jennsen says that if I'm the one, then Ah can help stop the war. Ah decided that was a bit more important than government protocol."
The agent nodded. "This changes things considerably. If there is truly a war going on, and it is within your power to stop it, then we will not stop you from doing so."
He held up a cautionary finger. "I am warning you, though: tell them only what you must. Make sure that they understand the importance of keeping this information secret."
"Believe me, they already do."
"Very well. You are dismissed."
"How'd it go?"
Rogue started. She hadn't noticed Logan as she stepped into the mansion. He was standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She could see a light on over the table.
"Acquittal on all charges."
"Mm-hmm. Now if you'll excuse me, there's still about four hours of night left. Ah'd like ta take advantage of 'em."
She turned and climbed the stairs, wearily making for her bedroom. Kitty was sprawled across her bed, her snores resembling a chainsaw. Rogue was fairly sure that elephant could have trumpeted right next to her ear, and Kitty wouldn't have woken.
Rogue changed into her nightgown quickly, and slipped into bed, falling asleep at last.
They're everywhere, filling the air all around her. Shrill wails of agony, cries of longing, sad, mournful. They make her heart break. She can't imagine what would make people cry with such overwhelming despair.
There is panic everywhere. Terrified people fill the streets. Mothers hold screaming children as they run, tears staining their cheeks. One woman is on her knees screaming, a lifeless babe clutched in her arms. Rogue wants to cry.
She turns from the desolate sight to be met with a worse one. A little boy, no more than five years old, stands in ragged clothes. His tiny hands grasp those of his parents, lying on the ground.
"Mommy? Daddy? Wake up. Please wake up."
The boy's words go unanswered. One look at the still forms and Rogue knows that this boy is now an orphan.
Scenes like these go on everywhere—husbands holding dead wives, brothers holding dead sisters. The corpses litter the street. It is the sight of a massacre.
Blood is everywhere. It covers the ground and the walls, the people are soaked with it. The stench of death is heavy in the air. Rogue has never seen so much death. The bodies are piled atop one another. The dead greatly outnumber the living.
Before she knows what she's doing, Rogue is standing next to the boy. She takes him in her arms, hugging him, whispering soft words of comfort. She feels something warm and wet on the back of her hand. The boy cries into her shoulder.
"Why won't they wake up?" he asks.
"Ah'm sorry. You're parents…they're in a better place, now."
"I want them to wake up. Make them wake up?"
Her eyes fill with tears for this poor boy. Suddenly he winces in pain.
She turns him around, and has to will herself to breath. There is a deep cut on his back, like he's been stabbed. He is bleeding all over her hand.
"I think I need to lie down," he says.
He has lost so much blood. It's almost more than she can stand. She holds him gently in her lap.
"What's yer name?"
"Mali." His voice is barely a whisper. His eyelids droop.
"That's a pretty name," she says, her voice breaking. "Ah'm Rogue."
"Rogue," he mumbles. "I like that name." Mali leans his head against her chest. "Sounds like a story hero."
"So does Mali. Ah bet one day they'll make a story about you. Mali the Great, they'll call you."
He smiles with his eyes half-closed. He sighs. Rogue watches his chest, waiting for it to rise again.
Rogue gently rocks back and forth, tears now flowing freely down her cheeks, as she holds the lifeless body in her arms.
Rogue sat bolt upright. Her body quivered. Tears stained her vision. She glanced around, half-expecting to see a room full of corpses. There was only Kitty, still sleeping peacefully.
She laid back down, taking deep breaths to calm herself. It was a just a dream. Just a stupid little dream. There were no bodies, no screams, and no Mali. Everything was fine.
The room was considerably lighter than it had been when she'd gone to sleep. A quick glance at the clock told her that it was almost eight-thirty. She'd slept for a little over four hours. That was better than nothing, at least.
Seeing as she was already wide-awake, and not the least bit eager to have another dream like that, she decided it would be best to get up. Besides, everyone would want to get back to the business with Jennsen, and they couldn't do that without her. She suddenly wondered why they weren't at school, before remembering that school was closed for a teacher workday. Quietly as she could, which in her case meant practically silent, Rogue pulled on her clothes and made for the kitchen.
Amazingly, the kitchen was empty except for Ororo, Hank, Jennsen, and one of the twins—Kevin, she thought. The four of them seemed to be enjoying a conversation about genetic mutations. Jennsen appeared absolutely fascinated by the idea. She listened with rapt attention as Hank explained how all genetic material is stored in the DNA.
"But how can it be so small?" she asked. "It's so important."
"The Amulet is small," Rogue said from the door. "But it's important too."
Hank gestured for her to take a seat. "Ah, what a pleasant surprise. And how are you fairing on this fine morning?"
"Ah'm fine, Ah guess. Finally got some sleep."
His brow furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean, finally?"
"Oh, Ah had some last-minute work to do. Nothin' major."
"Ah. Well, I was just explaining the function of deoxyribonucleic acid to these two when you arrived. Would you care to partake in our little tête-à-tête?"
"Good," Ororo added, "maybe you could explain it in words that have fewer than ten syllables each. I bet they'd start to understand then."
"I see no flaw with my choice of vernacular, thank you very much," he replied, somewhat indignantly. She rolled her eyes.
Jennsen broke in timidly. "I still do not understand what ze DNA does. How does it make mutants?"
Before anyone could stop him Hank launched into a lecture on nitrogenous bases, hydrogen bonds, ATPs, and about a million other things that Rogue couldn't keep up with. She made a bowl of cereal, instead. She was almost finished with it when Ororo cut the big blue Beast off in the middle of a sentence about the function of messenger RNA strands.
"Hank, I think they get the idea. Normal DNA equals normal people. Abnormal DNA equals mutants. It is very simple."
"Very well, we will stand by your abridged version of the genetic system for the time being. For now, let us discuss a more entertaining topic, hmm?"
"Yeah," Kevin said, speaking up for the first time, "like Little Miss CIA over here. How did you pull that off?"
"Ah can't tell ya."
He laughed. "You're kidding me, right?"
"No. If Ah tell ya, Ah'll probably get fired."
"Well that stinks."
"What is ze CIA?"
Jennsen was watching Rogue with immense curiosity.
"It's short fer Central Intelligence Agency. It basically works to keep our country safe."
"Like an arrmy?"
"More like special forces. Unlike an army, most people have no idea what happens inside the CIA. Agents could be in another country fighting right now and most people wouldn't know it."
"Why is it kept a secrret?"
" 'Cause knowledge is power, and it's best not to let the enemy see how much pow'r ya have."
"I zink I underrstand, Ausierre. And will zis CIA be helping my people, too?"
Rogue shook her head. "Their duties are here, with our people. But they have no objection to my helping you."
"So you really arre going to help stop ze warr?"
Rogue glanced at Ororo and Hank for support. They looked as unsure as she felt. "Jennsen, Ah don't know how ta stop a war."
"Ah mean, Ah'll do whatever Ah can, but…Ah can't promise any more than that."
"I underrstand. You will do yourr best. You arre ze Ausierre, zat will be enough."
"How can you be so sure?"
Jennsen blinked. She looked like Rogue had just asked her how she knew the sky was blue. "Ze Ausierre is always someone of grreat powerr and strrength. Zey can accomplish ze impossible. Everryone knows zis."
"If you say so."
"I know so," the girl replied in her own language.
"You put too much faith in me. I'm not as strong as you think I am."
"Yet your people have chosen you to be part of an elite army to keep them safe. Why would they do that if you were not strong?"
Rogue had to admit that it made sense. "That still doesn't mean I'm strong enough, though. What if I don't have enough power?"
Jennsen smiled. "Then we would not be talking in a language that you have heard only in your dreams."
"Don't mention dreams," Rogue said, remembering Mali. "Mine haven't been very pleasant lately."
"What kind of dreams?"
"Streets filled with bodies. Little boys dying. Like I said, not very pleasant."
The girl's smile faded. "Actually, it sounds a lot like home."
Rogue waited patiently as everyone settled into their chairs to discuss everything that was happening. The Amulet still sat in the center of the table, where everyone had an easy view of it. When everyone was ready, but before Xavier had a chance to speak, Rogue stood.
"Last night Ah had a very disturbing dream. Ah was standing in a street littered with bodies, while those still living screamed in agony. There was a little boy standing next to his dead parents. Ah tried to comfort him. He died in mah arms.
"Even thought it was only a dream, in Jennsen's world it is becoming more and more of a reality. Thousands are dying as a result of the war. Ah can't just let that happen. Ah'm going to help her people. You can help me, or you can stay. It's all up to you."
She sat back down.
Xavier bowed his head to her. "Very well put. I agree with you; we must do something. I have been thinking about it for awhile, and have decided that the best thing would be to send a small group with Jennsen. That way she could get the help she needs, without it taking to much away from the strength of the X-Men."
"So who'd you have in mind, Chuck?" Logan asked.
The Professor shook his head. "I am not going to ask anyone to do this, Logan. The risks are too great. Anyone who goes will do so of their own will. I am not going to force my friends into war." His gaze swept over the table. "Are there any volunteers?"
As one the twins raised their hands. "We go where Jenn goes," Dan explained.
Next was Kurt. "I'm not letting mein Schwester go alone."
"Like, me neither," Kitty chimed. "Put me on the list, too."
Gambit looked up from the deck of cards he was shuffling. "Don't even t'ink about leavin' de Gambit behind."
"And I better go to keep him in line," Logan said. "Who knows what kind of trouble he'll get into."
"I don't zink I can take anymorre people," Jennsen said.
Xavier nodded. "Then it's settled. The eight of you will go with Jennsen. Now, we need to discuss details. First, how will you get there?"
It was such an obvious question, Rogue couldn't believe she hadn't considered it before. Shouldn't that have been the first thing they talked about?
"I can open ze porrtal," Jennsen offered. "It will be a fairrly simple matterr. Just a few incantations, is all."
She explained a little bit about how a portal was opened. It would only stay open for a minute or two, so they would have to hurry through. The actual transport would be almost instantaneous, she told them. Not too different from Kurt's teleporting.
They went on to discuss things like what to take, weather or not they should pack weapons, and the like. A cover story had to be thought up to explain their absence from school. They discussed ways of keeping in touch while they were gone, like the communicators. That idea was discarded, however, when Kitty pointed out that there wouldn't be any satellites to relay the message. Same thing went for cell phones and computers as well, which meant there would be no way to connect back home. Once they left, they were on their own.
It was decided that they would leave that day, just as soon as everything was ready. They seemed to have worked everything out. Only one thing remained: to tell the New Mutants.
"I suppose I should call them in," Xavier said. He sent out a telepathic message to the kids. After a few minutes Bobby walked in, followed by Amara, then Jamie. Soon everyone was gathered in the briefing room. There were questioning glances shot at the three strangers. Several stared openly at the glittering Amulet. They exchanged whispers with one another.
Xavier shushed them. "I have something very important to tell you. First, I would like you all to meet Jennsen, Daniel, and Kevin. They came here the other night requesting our help. Jennsen is from another dimension, another world. Her people are facing very dire circumstances."
The kids exchanged looks. They seemed to be weighing the odds that the Professor was joking them. He must have sensed this, because he began to assure them that his words were true.
"I'm not playing a joke on you. I have spoken every word true. Jennsen is from a place called Ben-Tari. Her people are at war, fighting against a tyrant. She came here in desperate need of aid, which we have agreed to give. Rogue, Gambit, Kitty, Kurt, and Logan have all agreed to go with her to her home," he said, indicating each of them in turn, "to help."
"Why can't we go?" Bobby asked indignantly. "We're good fighters."
"Which is why I need you to stay here, to continue working as X-Men. It will be a more difficult task with so many people leaving. I am going to need your help more than ever. I hope you are ready for the challenge."
The students swelled with pride, saying that he could count on them for anything.
"I knew I could."
"So how long will they be gone?" Jamie asked.
Xavier blinked. A few people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Rogue suddenly found a tiny scratch on the table very interesting.
Jamie looked around expectantly. "Well? Will they be gone a few days? A week? What?"
"Jamie," Xavier began slowly, "I don't know."
"What do you mean?"
"They are going to a very dangerous place, to do something very difficult. They are trying to stop a war. It could be that the whole thing is resolved in a few days, and they come back by the end of the week. Or it could take months. Maybe longer."
Even though he didn't say it, everyone knew what he meant. They may never come home. It was a war, after all. In war, people got hurt. That wasn't a prospect many of them were used to.
"I understand," Jamie said, although he obviously didn't.
The silence stretched uncomfortably. Finally Logan stood, saying they needed to start packing, and everyone filed out of the room.
Rogue didn't take long to pack. All she really needed were some clothes. There money would be useless, and she couldn't see a reason to bring a gun when they would only have a limited supply of ammo. She remembered Jennsen saying something about cold weather, and decided to bring a pair of gloves.
When she was done stuffing items into her backpack she brought it downstairs, resting it against the side of a chair. Jennsen had told them that the portal could only be opened at the place where she had come in, in the woods. It would be a bit of a hike, but nothing they couldn't handle. It was almost noon; they would leave right after lunch.
They ate in silence, everyone preoccupied with their own thoughts. Hank wasn't there. More than likely he was locked up in the lab, proving some as-yet impossible theory that would put him down in history books. Typical Hank.
Rogue wished they could all just hurry up and leave. She didn't like sitting around waiting. She wasn't looking forward to the goodbyes, either. It would be so much easier if they could just slip away at night, without anyone noticing.
Hank loped into the kitchen, something clutched in his big hand. He offered it out to Rogue.
It was the Amulet, but he had attached a fine gold chain to it.
"I assumed this would make it easier for you to carry," he explained.
"Thanks." She slipped the chain over her neck. The Amulet felt heavy around her neck, but at the same time the weight was oddly comforting. A tiny bit of heat radiated from the disc.
The woods were peaceful. Birds sang merrily in the branches overhead, while the occasional squirrel chattered at them as they passed by. Leaves crunched underfoot. The light scattered through the tree limbs, creating strange patterns on the ground.
Rogue walked slightly behind the others. Up ahead the others were talking animatedly. Every now and then Kitty laughed, often enticing Jennsen and Kurt to join in. Dan's face seemed permanently split by a wide grin, and Gambit's eyes held a devilish glint. Rogue idly wondered if she should be afraid. Kevin and Logan were a few paces ahead, holding what appeared to be a slightly more serious conversation.
All in all it was turning into a pleasant hike. They'd been walking for a little over an hour, and Jennsen kept assuring them that they were almost there. Rogue didn't really care; she was enjoying the forest. It was peaceful.
She pulled her gaze away from the trees. "Hey. Um, Kevin, right?"
He nodded, changing his pace to match hers.
"Ah take it Logan chased ya away."
"Basically." He laughed. "That man has serious people issues."
"Why do ya think they call him The Wolverine?"
Kevin threw his hands in the air. "Well I wish someone had told me that before! That would've saved my ears from some very interesting, if anatomically impossible threats."
"What'd he say he'd do?"
"Let's just say it involved a branding iron and leave it at that."
Good old Logan.
"Don't let 'im get to ya. He's not as mean as he pretends…usually. What?" Kevin had his head cocked to one side and was watching her intently.
"I like your hair. Most people prefer blond highlights. I've never seen white ones before."
"That's 'cause mine's natural."
"Cool." He ducked under a low-hanging branch. "Did your mom have hair like that, too?"
Rogue shrugged. "Ah wouldn't know." At his puzzled expression she added, "Ah was adopted."
"Oh. But Kurt keeps saying you're his sister, and I know I heard him talking about his mom earlier."
She nodded. "Mystique. His biological mom, mah adopted one. Unfortunately."
"What, you don't like her?"
Rogue cocked an eyebrow. "The woman's insane. She heads the Brotherhood. Her mission in life is to eradicate mankind."
"A fanatic. How nice."
"Welcome to mah sad little world."
Rogue glanced ahead, and almost plowed into Kitty. They had all stopped moving. Jennsen was looking around at the trees.
"Zis is ze place," she said. "I will begin setting up ze spell."
"Vhat can ve do?" Kurt asked.
"I need everryone to come hearre, and sit in a circle." They all did as they were told. Rogue found herself opposite Jennsen, sitting between Gambit and Kitty.
She made sure she had a firm grip on her power before taking their hands gently. Gambit gave hers a gently squeeze.
"Once ze porrtal iz open, you must all go thrrough firrst. I will hold it open, and enterr last. I will need you to be quiet, so my concentration does not break. Do you all understand?" They all nodded and said that they did. "Good." She began chanting in a soft, flowing voice. "Nirva sholem ka. Nirva sholem ka. Nirva sholem ka."
A tiny point of light appeared in the air over their heads. As she chanted the light grew, taking on a circular shape. Different colors began to swirl around inside it, like colored dye in water. Blues and greens mixed with yellows and oranges and reds, yet the colors didn't blend together. Instead they curled around each other, always moving, always growing, until the light was several feet across.
It began to elongate, stretching down towards the ground, until it was tall enough for a person to walk through. The light brightened, and the colors danced with one another.
Jennsen nodded once. It was time to go.
Logan stepped up to the portal. He sniffed at it, then stepped boldly through. Kurt went next, taking a running start and then jumping through. Kevin and Dan went together, scrunching their eyes closed before walking into it. Kitty stood at the brink for a moment, took a deep breath, and stepped through. Gambit walked up to the portal, turned, did an elegant bow, and then stepped backwards through the light.
Finally it was Rogue's turn. She stood, studying the light carefully. It was slightly smaller, she noticed. Jennsen was having a difficult time keeping it open. Rogue glanced over her shoulder at the woods one last time, and stepped through.
It was like standing on a roller coaster.
She was in a tunnel made of the same swirling, colored lights as the portal, only this time everything was moving. Rogue felt like she was being propelled forward at an insane speed by some invisible force. Colors raced past her, blurring together as she sped past. It was like being in a movie on fast-forward. Everything raced by as the tunnel twisted and turned first one way, then another. She couldn't understand how she was able to stay upright. It was all happening so fast.
Then, as quickly as it had started, it stopped. The light disappeared, leaving her disoriented and seeing spots. Her body swayed on the suddenly still ground. She shook her head to clear her vision.
She was standing in the middle of a small room. The floors were made of wood, and the walls were stone. Two rows of beds lined either side of the room. Each bed had uniform white sheets laid over them to fall over the wooden frames at exactly the same height. The top sheets were turned down from the pillow at the place on every bed.
Between the beds small wooden tables hugged the walls. The tables all held the same things: a folded white cloth, a small bowl, and a kerosene lamp. There were drawers with little silver handles on each table.
Rogue spied Kitty and the others standing by one of the beds at the far side of the room. Kitty glanced up at her, waving her over to them. Rogue looked back over her shoulder at the swirling portal. As she watched a brown-robed arm poked through, followed by a leg, and then the rest of Jennsen as she stepped through. When the tale of her robe cleared the light, it vanished into nothingness.
"Where are we?" Rogue asked. Jennsen looked around, and Rogue could tell that she was seeing things that had once been there.
"The infirmary," she said in a quiet voice, almost to herself. "We're in the Abbey's infirmary."
"Abbey?" Kurt watched them from across the room. "This is an Abbey?"
Jennsen nodded. "The Abbey of Father Harold." Her voice broke slightly. "This is where they…where L'Kal's men attacked, the night I left." She sank down onto the foot of a bed. "They were looking for the Amulet. This building is a house of worship, no one thought it would ever be attacked, so there aren't any defenses. We've always allowed people to come and go at will. The Shiran walked right through the front door. They asked the Gatekeeper where the Amulet was. When he didn't answer, they killed him. They charged into the building, looking for the Abbot. He hid up here, with a few others. My parents and I were here too. We thought that maybe they'd give up and leave. When they kept coming, the Abbot opened a portal. He sent me through with the Amulet. The last thing I saw was the Shiran coming through the door, killing people."
Rogue looked away. The memory of her dream came surging forward, and she found herself unable to forget the feel of Mali's lifeless little body.
"Welcome to Hallsington, crown city of Paladir."
Cobblestone roads spread out in every direction, lined on either side by shops of every sort. Elaborately painted signs hung over wooden doors, proclaiming the shopkeeper's profession. There were butchers and tailors, bakeries and blacksmiths, jewelers and apothecaries. Items hung in windows, displaying their fine quality.
Interspersed among the stores were venders displaying everything from crude talismans guaranteed to cure fevers, to swords and daggers that had all been in the most prestigious battles, almost always in the hands of a legendary king or lord. Men stood behind the little tables, preaching the authenticity of their wares. People crowded around them, haggling prices, making deals, and arguing over the workmanship. Coins flowed freely.
Set off from the market, but still close enough to be convenient, were the inns. Being several stories taller than the shops, they were easy to spot. As with the stores, these had painted signs hanging over the entryways. There was The Bullhead Tavern, The Greenleaf Inn, The Black Crow, and dozens more. They ranged from the stately and well-kept to the run-down. Some were two stories high, some three, some only one. A few had little stone figures decorating the doorways.
Crowding the streets at every corner, making their ways from the inns to the shops and back, were people. Throngs of them, dressed in everything from worker's uniforms to fine suits and dresses. They went in and out of shops, gathered around venders, and disappeared inside taverns. Some formed groups outside of shops, heartily discussing current events. Almost everyone seemed to be talking about the attack on the Abbey.
Rogue twisted her head in every direction, wanting to take it all in. Hallsington was like a city straight from the movies. Horses clip-clopped down the streets, some towing fine carriages behind them. The men all wore sword at their hips, and the women were all in flowing dresses. It was like stepping back in time.
"This is, like, so cool!"
Kitty was staring openly at the spectacle before them. They had walked along the road outside the Abbey and were now standing at the fringes of the city. It had been a short fifteen-minute walk. Rogue supposed the small distance was so that the Abbey would be far enough away to have some seclusion, but close enough to serve as a place of worship for the people in Hallsington.
Jennsen's spirits had raised once they were away from the Abbey. She was smiling easily now, as was everyone else.
"I've never seen anyplace like it," Dan chimed.
Kevin nodded his agreement. "Horse-drawn carriages…cobblestone roads…"
"And not a single car, truck, or motorcycle," his brother added. He took a deep breath. "Ah, fresh air! No pollution! No factory smoke!"
"No plumbing," Logan broke in. "No running water, no heat, no lighting, no radios, no computers, no TVs, no—"
"All right already! We get the picture!"
"You are, like, such a spoilsport," Kitty huffed. Logan acted like he didn't notice.
Gambit finally started walking towards the city. He turned to them, walking backwards. "Well? Are you just going to stand there all day, or what?"
Rogue started to follow him, Kitty at her side. Kurt made to leap past them, but was stopped by Logan's hand on his fuzzy shoulder.
"Hold it, Elf. Aren't you forgetting something?"
Kurt grinned sheepishly, pushing the button on his holowatch. Immediately his blue fur and fangs were replaced by what would have been an average teenage boy back in Bayville, but was probably just as out-of-place here as his yellow eyes and tail. Logan took off his hand, and Kurt ran out to meet Gambit. Jennsen slid up next to Rogue, adjusting her brown robes slightly.
"Being a member of the Abbey means I have a reputation to uphold," she said by way of explanation. "Especially now, after…"
Rogue placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, a gesture she wasn't quite used to expressing. "I understand."
Jennsen smiled at her. "Thank you, Ausierre. Your words mean a lot."
"You know, you could just call me Rogue like everyone else."
"But you are the Ausierre. Calling you anything less would be an insult."
Rogue jumped when Gambit slipped his arm around her waist.
"What about chere? That an insult?"
She smiled pleasantly at him. "Only coming from you, Swamp Rat." He opened his mouth to respond, only to find himself falling backward onto the stones underfoot. Rogue glared at him. "Don't touch me."
A devilish grin split his face. "I like a woman who takes charge."
She rolled her eyes before starting off again, not waiting for him to get up. Behind her the twins struggled to keep from laughing at the thief. Kitty didn't bother with trying to restrain herself.
Logan just ignored the whole thing.
As they made their way through the streets, people began to take notice of Jennsen. Several times they would walk up to her, offering condolences, or seeking guidance. A few bowed reverently.
"It looks like you're doing a good job with that rep," Rogue commented as a man strode happily away from them after being blessed by Jennsen.
"Just wait until they start to notice the Amulet," she said. Rogue was afraid she didn't want to know what that meant. So she asked where they were going, instead.
"Well first we have to find a place to spend the night."
"And then?" Rogue pressed.
"Then we're going to see King Marcus."
Rogue missed a step.
"King Marcus? King?"
"Why are you taking us to a King?"
Jennsen raised an eyebrow. "So that he can swear fidelity to the Savior."
It was only by sheer luck that Rogue stayed on her feet.
"So he can…Please tell me you're kidding."
"About what," Kitty broke in, popping up between the two of them. Kurt appeared at Rogue's other side.
"Yeah, about what?"
"She says she's taking us to see a king."
"Cool," they chorused.
"She wants him to swear fidelity."
"So?" Kitty asked.
"Oh. This could get interesting."
Rogue glared. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"So," Kurt said, rubbing his hands together eagerly, "when do we see him?"
"Tomorrow." Jennsen nodded her head towards the inns. "First we must find a place to stay the night."
"Um, small problem," he said. "We're a little on the broke side. Unless of course they accept US currency, in which case…we're a little on the broke side," he finished flatly.
Jennsen waved his concerns aside. "You are traveling with a Sister of the Abbey. I could book an entire inn, in exchange for a blessing on the man who owned it. As of now, money is something you need not concern yourselves with."
As if to prove her point, a man who had been sweeping off the front steps of his inn leaned his broom against the door, stepping out in front of them. He dropped to his knees before Jennsen.
"Praise to the Order," he said reverently.
Jennsen kissed her hand, then touched the man's forehead. "The Star shines upon you."
The man stood, grinning broadly. "Thank you. I didn't know there were any of you left, after the attack." He stopped, suddenly realizing what he'd said. "Forgive me, I didn't mean any disrespect. Its just…people were beginning to lose faith."
"I understand. But soon all will have their faith restored."
"I don't understand."
She looked pointedly at Rogue. The man followed her gaze, his eyes settling on the Amulet hanging from her neck.
He fell to his knees, touching his forehead to the ground. He began kissing her feet, his hands clutching at her legs. She stepped back awkwardly.
"Get up," she said. Instantly the man was on his feet, tears shining in his eyes.
"As the Savior commands," he said. "Please, what is it you wish of me? I am humbly at your service." He bowed low.
"What's your name?"
"Gregory Mayfeild, milady. Keeper of the Gold Crown Inn," he added proudly.
Jennsen smiled. "What a coincidence. The Ausierre and her party are in need of a place to stay."
Gregory swayed on his feet. "The Savior? In my inn? What an honor!"
"And her party," Jennsen added. Gregory looked up, seeming to notice the others for the first time.
"Yes, yes, of course. You will have my finest rooms. Best accommodations on all of Oak Street. I'll not disappoint you."
"Excellent. The Ausierre will need dinner, of course."
Gregory nodded. "Of course. I'll have the cook get right on it. Er, and what would the Savior desire? Roasted duck? Potato soup? Ham?"
"How about a buffet of your finest dishes?"
Gregory bowed low. "As you wish. Do you wish to go to your rooms now?"
"I'll have your bags brought up." He shouted over his shoulder toward the inn. "John! Henry!"
Two boys emerged from the front door. One had a cup in his hand and was wiping it with a towel.
"Sir?" he asked.
"Don't just stand there, you fools! Get over here!"
The boys shrugged. The one with the cup set it down, flipping the towel over his shoulder. They jogged to Gregory's side, bowing slightly when they saw Jennsen.
"Sir?" the one with the towel repeated.
Gregory slapped the back of his head. "Do you have any idea who this is?" The boys shook their heads. "Well look at her!"
They did, their eyes widening almost instantly. As one, the boys fell to their knees.
"The Savior be Praised…"
"Get up," Rogue said quickly, before they could start kissing her feet. They sprang up instantly.
Gregory watched them for a minute, then thunked the top of their heads. "Don't just stand there! Get their packs!"
The boy without the towel bowed low in front of Rogue. "I will take your bag, if it pleases you."
The other boy scowled at him. "That's my job, Henry. I'll take her bag."
Henry shook his head. "Master Mayfield called both of us, not just you. I'll carry her bags if she wants me to."
"You can carry the other bags," John protested.
"So can you."
Rogue couldn't believe they were fighting over who got to carry her stuff inside. She cleared her throat, to get their attention.
"Maybe I should just carry 'em myself?"
Gregory paled. "Milady, there is no need…"
"Well somebody has to do it, and since these two can't make up their minds, I might as well."
"I'll take it for you," Henry offered.
"No, let me!"
Rogue rolled her eyes. "All right, new plan." She held the bag out to John. "He offered first, so he gets to take it in." John beamed proudly. Henry scowled at him. "Henry, you get to carry it out when we leave." The boy's face brightened. "As you wish, milady." He turned to his comrade. "Didja hear that?" he whispered excitedly. "She knows my name!"
That settled, the two began collecting everyone else's things before going back inside, grinning widely.
Gregory bowed low. "Please, follow me."
He led them into the inn, past the common room where men and women sat drinking and eating, and into a private room in the back.
"I'll have your meal ready shortly." He bowed quickly and left.
They all sat around the large table, taking in the room. It wasn't exactly spotless, but it was still cleaner than Rogue had expected.
"So," Kitty said after several long minutes, "Now what?"
"We eat," Jennsen answered simply. "Then we go to sleep, and tomorrow we head for the palace."
"Why?" Logan asked.
"We're here to end the war, right?" Jennsen asked.
"Well King Marcus is the leader of one of the few countries that stands against L'Kal. We need to tell him about the Ausierre, so he can send word to our allies."
Logan grunted his understanding. "So exactly what is the current situation as far as allies and enemies?"
Before Jennsen could answer Gregory stepped back in carrying a tray with drinks and a plate of biscuits.
"I'm afraid the kitchen staff is a little short-handed today, so it may take awhile."
"That's all right," Jennsen assured him. "Excuse me, but do you have a map I could borrow?"
"Map?" Gregory scratched his head. "Yes, I believe so. Just one moment." He disappeared, then reappeared a minute later holding a rolled up paper. "Here." He handed it to Jennsen, bowed, and left.
She unrolled the map on the table, using two mugs to hold it down on either end. The map showed dozens of small countries to the north, with larger countries to the south.
"These," she said, indicating the northern countries, "were once independent lands." She tapped one of the countries near the center. "This is Ray'Tak, L'Kal's homeland. He systematically conquered each of these independent lands to create what he calls the People's Empire." She tapped one of the large countries to the south. "This is Paladir." She pointed to the two countries nearest Paladir. "Kirak and Yucanni. Those three countries form the largest part of the Alliance of the Wildlands. They also take the brunt of the attacks from the Empire."
From what Jennsen had shown them, the People's Empire was at least twice the size of the Wildlands, even with the smaller, less important countries added in.
"How big is L'Kal's army?" Rogue asked, fearing to hear the answer.
"Close to half a million strong at least," Jennsen said glumly.
"And the Wildlands'?"
"Half that. Maybe."
Gambit raised an eyebrow. "Gambit thinks we're in trouble."
Biting wind sliced through the air, making the skeletal tree limbs rattle. Darkness reined over the dense wood. Glowing yellow eyes peeked out from between the branches, watching her. Following her.
Something shrieked in the distance. It was a death-call. Rogue shuddered at the sound. She picked her way carefully through the forest, trying to make use of what little light there was. The clouds that covered most of the stars parted occasionally to reveal a full moon.
Rogue heard something growl behind her. She froze. Soft footsteps continued towards her. She turned, coming face to face with a pair of red eyes.
Her heart jumped into her throat. Without thinking she took a step backwards. The creature took a step towards her. She could make out its shape against the trees. It stood on four muscular legs. Its head came up to her chest. It took another deliberate step forward, its blood red eyes never leaving her. The thing's mouth opened to reveal large white teeth. It growled again.
Rogue considered running, but decided it would be pointless. She couldn't possibly hope to outrun this beast. It continued forward, the moonlight glistening off its black fur. The thing moved like a living shadow, barely visible in the surrounding darkness.
She kept backing away from it, her mind racing to come up with a way out. Her back hit a tree trunk. The thing stopped a few feet from her. It looked up at the tree, then back down at her. It growled.
Rogue could feel herself shaking. The creature glanced at the tree again.
"Get away from me," she whispered shakily.
"Tree," the thing said in a deep bass voice. Rogue jumped. "Tree," it said again.
It growled. "Climb."
Understanding washed over her. That was why it had been staring at the tree. It wanted her to climb it.
"Why?" she asked. Her voice trembled.
The creature's eyes narrowed. "He comes."
"Who does? Who's coming?"
"Death Man. Climb."
Rogue shook her head. "I don't understand."
"Death Man comes. You climb. Death Man leaves. You climb down."
"What happens if I don't climb?"
"Death Man sees you."
Rogue swallowed. "And then?"
"He makes you dead. Climb now. Death Man almost here. Climb."
She decided to trust the creature, seeing as she didn't have much choice, and scaled the tree quickly. She sat on one of the branches, putting a hand to the trunk for support. The thing watched her for a few seconds.
"Stay," it growled. She nodded.
The thing turned, its ears straightening. A man on horseback came through the trees. He was dressed in all black. He had on a helmet with a spike at the top at two horns that curved forwards from the sides. His face was hidden beneath it. In one hand the man clutched a shield with a winged beast on it, in the other he held an axe. His huge black horse stopped in front of the creature.
"Where is she?" the Death Man hissed.
"Not here. Leave."
"Where is she?" the Death Man repeated.
The creature growled. "Death Man is not welcome here. Leave."
"Tell me where she is."
"Cloud Stripe not here."
Rogue guessed "Cloud Stripe" was supposed to be her.
The horse stamped a hoof. "Liar" The Death Man leaned forward in his saddle. "You're protecting her. Why?"
The creature shook its massive head. "Not protecting. Death Man leave now."
"Death Man is not welcome."
"Tell me where she is."
Rogue's heart hammered against her ribs. She prayed he wouldn't hear it. Or her ragged breathing, for that matter. The creature growled again, louder this time.
"Cloud Stripe not here. Leave"
The man looked around. Rogue found herself praying that his eyes wouldn't land on her. "I know she's here," he hissed. "Tell me where."
"Death Man thinks too much of himself. Thinks he is strong enough to tell Kwan Jang what to do." Its voice lowered dangerously. "Maybe Death Man wishes to be dead?"
The Death Man laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "I do not fear you. You are nothing without your pack."
The creature smiled. At least, it showed a lot of teeth. "Without pack? Kwan Jang is never without pack."
As the thing spoke, another creature stepped out behind the Death Man. Another one came from behind Rogue's tree. Soon the Death Man was surrounded.
"Now Death Man leaves," the creature said. A dozen red eyes watched him. "Or Kwan Jang gives attack sign."
The man straightened in his saddle. "Very well." He wheeled his horse around. The beasts parted to let him through. Suddenly the helmeted head whipped around. She couldn't see its eyes, but Rogue knew he was staring at her. Terror washed through her.
"I see you."
Rogue froze. The Death Man advanced towards her, raising his axe. When he stood in the stirrups he was tall enough to reach her with it.
"Cloud Stripe! Run!" The creature charged for her, something akin to panic showing in its red eyes. She needed no second warning. Before the Death Man could close the distance she leapt to the ground and ran. The creature took the lead. Behind, she heard sounds of battle as its pack attacked the man. From the pained cries they were making, it was clear who was winning.
The thing glanced over its shoulder to make sure she was following.
"Hurry Cloud Stripe! Follow Kwan Jang!"
Branches whipped at her face. Vines snagged her clothes. In the darkness, it was difficult to see the creature, let alone follow it.
The thunder of hooves warned that the Death Man was on their trail. Rogue was running as fast as she could, but she was no match for the giant horse. It grew ever closer, its hooves beating a quick tattoo on the ground.
She wasn't going to make it. He was going to catch her, and then that axe was going to cleave her in two. Rogue could see it as clearly as if it had already happened: her struggling to run away while the Death Man charged past, swinging his axe. There was no way out. If she tried climbing another tree he would catch up before she was high enough. Keep running, and he would overtake her. It was hopeless.
Something sharp dug into her arm. It tugged at her sleeve, pulling her around. The sudden change in direction made her lose her balance, and she tumbled onto the hard stone floor.
She started. Stone? Her eyes darted around; she was in a small cave. The creature let go of her sleeve and moved in front of her.
"Still," it commanded. She complied, laying as motionless as possible. Out side she heard the pounding of hooves as the Death Man charged past.
They waited. He didn't return. Finally the creature turned from the cave entrance to focus on her.
"Safe now," it said.
"Thank you for protecting me…um…"
"Kwan Jang," it told her.
"Kwan Jang. Thank you very much."
Kwan Jang smiled at her. "Cloud Stripe need not say thanks. Her actions will be thanks enough."
"My actions?" Rogue shifted so she was sitting cross-legged on the cold floor.
The big black head nodded. " 'This war will be fought for all,'" he quoted. At least, she was pretty sure it was a he. "Prophecies speak of great honor given to Kwan Jang's pack by Cloud Stripe."
He did a fair imitation of a shrug, retracting his bull neck into his shoulders. "Don't know. Up to Cloud Stripe."
"Figures." Rogue was getting a little annoyed with everyone acting like she was some supreme being. It had an unsettling resemblance to Magneto's theory that Mutants were superior to mankind.
Kwan Jang looked up at the sliver of sky visible through the cave entrance. It was painted a brilliant shade of orange. Dawn.
"Go," he ordered. "Bring Kwan Jang his honor."
"I'll do my best."
The beast nodded slowly, wisely. "Always. That is the way. Go now."
"Make way! Make way for the Savior!"
Crowds parted like the Red Sea as the procession moved past. People dropped to their knees in a huge wave that rippled down the street. As they passed people stood once more to stare in awe at the grand sight that moved through the city.
Two hundred soldiers marched six abreast down the cobblestone road. Sunlight reflected off the tips of a forest of lances, and off the perfectly polished breastplates of each man. Every lance was held at precisely the same angle. Every foot fell at exactly the same time. At every left hip hung a sword with an ornate letter P on the hilt. From every right shoulder, pinned with two brass buttons, hung a crimson cape.
In front of the soldiers marched a standard-bearer, holding aloft a flag adorned with a sword crossing over a shield against a crimson field: the flag of Paladir. Beside him was the herald whose voice brought the attention of everyone in the area, as though the ranks of soldiers weren't enough. While he shouted the Savior's coming for all to hear, beside him a drummer beat a steady tattoo, setting the pace for the soldiers.
As the column marched passed, people marveled at the sight of two hundred soldiers, all stepping in perfect time with one another. But it was what walked in the center that captivated their eyes, and made them whisper prayers under their breaths.
The Savior had come to Hallsington.
Rogue and her seven companies walked in the middle of the two hundred men bristling with steel. Wolverine, Dan, and Kevin walked at the fore. Behind them strode Jennsen, proud and tall in the brown robes of her trade. To the rear were Gambit, Kurt, and Kitty. They all walked in silence, their faces a reflection of the steel-clad men who surrounded them. They were filled with purpose.
In the center of it all walked Rogue. She was dressed from head to toe in the color that suited her best: black. She had no gothic makeup, however, as it was all back at the mansion. Like Jennsen, she walked with her back straight and her head high, looking the world straight in the face. One her chest, sparkling in the light, was the Amulet of Life. It drew more gazes than anything else. Not even Rogue's white streaks could compete with the way people gawked at the gold disc hanging round her neck.
Rogue glanced to the soldiers on either side of her. They had been selected from Hallsington's Home Guard earlier, when Jennsen told the Captain of her need for an escort. Once she gave the reason men began tripping over themselves to volunteer. Everyone wanted to be a part of this grand moment in history.
Beyond the lances she could see stunned people watching her with emotions ranging from wonder, to reverence, to wide-eyed terror. She wondered what could cause such a diverse range of emotions. To see one person look at her like she was salvation of mankind, and another stare at her as though she were about to strike them dead at a moment's notice, was bizarre to say the least. She couldn't help but wonder what had led to such great fear of the Savior. At the same time she was afraid she might find out.
The King's Palace loomed up ahead. It was built on a hill, so that it towered above the rest of the city. Not that needed much help. The walls vaulted up towards the sky, coming together in a great domed roof at the center. Towers shot upwards like great stone arrows, trapped in their flight to the stars. A giant wall encircled the grand structure, hiding parts of it from view. Soldiers marched between the guard posts on the wall, while men prepared to open the iron portcullis.
When the soldiers were almost to the gates a voice rang out from the wall above.
"Who goes there? Halt, and be recognized!"
The herald stepped foreword. He raised the white horn at his hip and blew it once, sending out a low, clear note that rose in pitch as it continued. He dropped the horn, shouting, "Open the gates! The Savior has come for an audience with the King! Let us pass!"
An answering horn sounded from the wall, and the portcullis began to raise. As soon as the iron spikes were far enough overhead, they marched through. What lay on the other side took Rogue's breath away.
They cobblestone road they had marched on for so long changed suddenly to a paved street painted with colorful designs. On either side of them sat a row of marble statues, guardians of stone. Some were of past kings, sitting in their thrones with magnificent crowns upon their heads. The watched the gates of their palace, overseeing the safety of their home. Beyond them stood great stone beasts that snarled at unseen enemies of the Crown. Giant marble paws hung frozen in the air, claws extended, preparing to slash at their opponents. On some great wings rose up, as though the mighty stone creatures were going to take flight at any moment. Every statue had a living quality to it. They were not so much statues as they were living stone. They seemed alert, aware, sentient. Rogue stared in wonder at their incredible beauty.
Their eyes caught her attention most, though. The eyes were not carved of stone. Instead, they were made of precious jewels, set into the marble. It reminded her of nothing so much as the statue of Polyphemus from which she had taken the fateful Prophecy. She doubted that it was a coincidence. Rubies and sapphires and emeralds all sparkled on the faces of stone, adding to the illusion of reality.
On the road ahead, between the rows of stone, stood the grand entrance to the palace. Nearly on hundred steps rose to meet massive columns, each as big around as an elephant. They were decorated with gold bands at the top and bottom that sparkled whenever the sun hit them. Beyond them was an open space that would seem massive by normal standards, but when seen as part of the palace was nothing more than a modest porch. Gilded designs covered the floor there. Strange shapes and patterns interlocked with one another to form a complex pattern that was at once confusing and beautiful.
Beyond the steps, and the columns, and the intricate design stood the doors. Two of them, each twice the height of a man, opened wide enough for twenty soldiers to march though side by side. Symbols covered the doorframe, but Rogue had no time to consider their meaning as she strode past the great doors and into the palace itself.
The gilded designs, it seemed, was a common theme throughout the palace. Dozens of lines crissed and crossed along the entryway floor, joining and separating in what seemed to be chaos, but somehow gave off a sense of order. More of the giant columns rose on either side to support the high ceiling overhead. Rogue guessed that if she put her arms around one, they wouldn't even make it half-way. Letting her gaze drift higher, she noticed stained-glass windows near the ceiling that let in the warm sunlight.
Beyond the columns stood a force of soldiers that dwarfed hers to the point of insignificance. Well over a thousand men stood at attention on either side of the hall, eyes rooted to the front, feet together, hands at their sides. If they took any notice of the relatively small force moving past, they didn't show it.
At the end of the long hall stood another set of giant doors, this time with perhaps half a dozen soldiers in front of them. As the procession neared the doors a man stepped forward. He was dressed like the others with the exception of the gold star tattooed on his forehead. When the soldiers were close enough he held out his hand.
Two hundred men all snapped to attention at once. The drummer beat out one last, hard strike. The herald stepped forward. He gave a salute with his fist to his heart, which the soldier returned.
"Who seeks an audience with King Marcus, sovereign of all Paladir?" demanded the soldier.
"It is the Savior," replied the herald. From the way they spoke it was plain to Rogue that the conversation was more ceremony than anything else. "Stand aside, General, and let her pass!"
The General saluted with a fist to his heart. With a clatter of metal, every one of the attendant soldiers did the same. The men standing in front of the doors stepped aside, with two opening them as they did so.
The procession marched through the doors and into the King's throne room. As they filed in, the soldiers peeled off to either side to join the ranks of men already standing along the walls. Within seconds the ring of steel was gone, and only the eight companions were left.
They strode purposefully down the red carpet leading to the throne, trying not to stare at the rich tapestries that covered the walls, or at the ornate battle standards that hung from the ceiling. Rogue kept her eyes rooted on the golden throne that sat atop a large dais, and the man who sat in it.
King Marcus was the picture of authority. He was in his late fifties, but held no sign of being old. He was alert and strong, his piercing brown-eyed gaze taking in every detail around him. His back was straight and his chin high; this was not a man to be taken lightly. His wavy brown hair was ringed by a gold crown that wrapped around his head like three intertwining strands of thread. His clothes were the most decorative Rogue had ever seen. Gold brocades ran around the collar and down the front of his scarlet coat, with more two more circling the cuffs of his sleeves. The coat was open slightly, revealing an embroidered gray vest underneath. His pants and boots were both black, but the boots had golden trimming at the top. Heavy jeweled rings adorned every one of his fingers. He was an imposing sight, but Rogue felt something was missing. A sword. That was it, she realized: he was missing a sword. This was a man who wasn't complete without a sword.
When they were still several feet away from the dais Logan, Kevin, and Dan stopped. They stepped aside to let Jennsen pass, as she had instructed them to. Before any other introduction Jennsen dropped to one knee, lowering her head in a bow. Rogue noted that she was only on one knee, rather than two like when she bowed to Rogue. The others all followed Jennsen's example, except for Rogue. As per the other girl's instructions, she remained on her feet.
"When we enter the throne room," Jennsen had said, "I will bow. You all will do the same. Rogue, you will not. Under no circumstances are you to so much as bow your head for King Marcus. You are his superior, not he yours. Do not let him forget that."
Now, as everyone else dropped to the floor, the King was granted an unhindered view of Rogue. He looked her up and down—not like most men did, allowing their eyes to rove over her chest, but like a soldier sizing up an opponent. His gaze lingered on the Amulet for a few seconds before finally rising until their eyes locked. In those hard brown orbs she saw two things: a sense of justice and an iron will.
"Rise, my people," he said in a deep voice that rang with authority. There was much rustling of cloth as everyone stood once again. Jennsen stepped forward.
"My King, I am Sister Jennsen Turlock of the Abbey of Father Harold."
"So I see," the King said, gesturing towards her robes. "It has been a long time since a member of the Order was in my court. I hope you bring good tidings?"
Jennsen nodded. "Your Majesty, I bring for you the greatest news imaginable. A new Savior now walks among us."
King Marcus' eyes glanced over Jennsen's shoulder to watch Rogue. She tried not to fidget under his scrutiny.
"And what has you so convinced," he began, looking once more at Jennsen, "that she is the Savior?"
The girl did not falter. She calmly clasped her hands in front of her, a pose that made her look a little older, and much wiser. "I am convinced, You Majesty, because she spoke of the Red Eye Prophecy."
Rogue had enough experience reading people's expressions to know that the King was only pretending to be ignorant. He hadn't asked the question to learn the answer; he had asked the question to learn more about Jennsen.
"I do not know how well versed Your Majesty is in prophecy—"
"Very well versed," he interrupted. She nodded.
"Then you must know of the Naming Prophecy. It says 'she is the holder of the Amulet, and shall proclaim herself so.'"
The King waved her explanation aside. "That proves nothing. How do you know that she is the one spoken of in the Prophecy?"
"Because, Your Majesty, the Naming Prophecy also makes clear that it will only come to pass if the Red Eye Prophecy also comes to pass. They are linked with one another. The fact that her actions fit in with both Prophecies means that she is the one. She is the Ausierre."
King Marcus nodded. "Very well. You three, step aside," he said to Logan and the twins, waving his hand to illustrate. The did as he ordered, leaving no one between Rogue and the King. "Now you," he said "step forward."
Jennsen's words played through her head. "You are his superior, not he yours. Do not let him forget that."
"I'm happy right here, thank you," she said. She noted, with some dismay, that nearly a thousand hands moved to grasp sword hilts. Luckily no blades were drawn. She reasoned that as long as she never saw steel, she was safe.
The King leaned forward in his throne. "Do you know whom you are addressing?" he asked dangerously.
"Of course. You're the man who's going to help lead the Wildlands to victory. Am I right?"
The corners of his mouth turned up in a small smile. Apparently she had answered right, because the thousand hands were now leaving their sword hilts.
"Right you are. And may I please know who you are?"
"I am the Ausierre, the Savior, and the Rogue. You may call me whichever one you like best," she added, shrugging her shoulders. The King leaned back in his chair.
"So, a Savior has come to Paladir. Little young, though, aren't you?"
Rogue shrugged again. "That depends on your standards. King Tutankhamun assumed the throne when he was just six. I'm a decade older than him."
"Well what are your people's standards?"
"By my people's standards I'm old enough to be a government agent. I guess that means I'm old enough to do just about anything. Now can we please move on to more important things?"
"Your allegiance to me. Sister Jennsen, here, has informed me that the King of Paladir is bound to the Amulet, and its holder. Since I hold the Amulet, you have a duty to me. I am now calling upon you to honor that duty. What say you?"
The room held its breath as King Marcus studied her from his golden seat. Her heart pounded with the enormity of what was happening. If he agreed, then they would be able to begin working to end the war. If he said no, then…well, then they probably wouldn't make it out of the room alive. The thousand hands were back on their sword hilts.
And then, with the slow grace of a lion, the King rose from his throne. He descended the dais steps calmly, his eyes never leaving Rogue. The sound of his boots echoed off the walls as he crossed the red carpet, stopping within arm's length of her.
Without speaking a word, King Marcus, ruler of Paladir, dropped to his knees.
"I pledge my land, my sword, and my life to the Savior," he said. The words were obviously ceremonial, but they were not spoken by rote. He meant every word.
There was a great clamor of steel as the thousand soldiers all dropped to the floor. Every person in the room bowed low, touching their foreheads to the marble floor.
"Rise, my people," she whispered. In the silent room, she might as well have shouted it. Everyone rose to their feet. King Marcus smiled at her.
"This is truly a great day," he said.
Before Rogue could say anything the doors burst open behind her. She turned in time to see a weary soldier run through. He came to a panting halt before King Marcus, dropping into a hasty bow and rising without waiting for the King's consent.
"My King, urgent news from Captain Blain!"
"Report," the King ordered.
The soldier took a few gulping breaths before continuing. "The enemy is moving, Sire. They will be at out walls within the hour."
"Five-hundred thousand, Sire, approaching from the North."
King Marcus turned to the row of soldiers standing at attention against the wall.
The man with the star tattooed forehead stepped forward, saluting with his fist to his heart. "Your Majesty?"
"Take these men to the walls. Sound the alarms. See to it that the signals are lit, then begin setting up defenses. I want every able-bodied man armed and on that wall, is that understood?"
The General clapped his fist to his heart. "Yes, sir!" He turned to the soldiers surrounding them. "Well you heard the King! Fall in! Swift march!"
The thousand men all marched out the doors in two great columns of steel. They moved quickly despite their numbers, and soon the messenger was the only soldier left in the room.
"You aren't actually going to fight, are you?" Logan asked. The King nodded slowly.
"We have no other choice. Hallsington is on the border of L'Kal's Empire. If we don't meet them, here, then they will sweep through the free lands like wildfire. I cannot let that happen."
"How many men do you have?"
The King's shoulders sagged. "Not nearly enough. With luck we'll be able to hold the enemy off until reinforcements arrive. Either way, we are going to defend our walls with every breath we have."
Rogue nodded her understanding. "I've been in seemingly hopeless situations before. There were times when I was sure I was going to die, so I fought on anyway. Better to die knowing I had done my best than to surrender to the enemy, and risk betraying my people. Every one of those times something happened, something I hadn't imagined was possible, and I managed to survive."
"I'm glad you understand," the King said. "Perhaps you have some ideas that will be of aid?"
"How long will you need to stall until reinforcements arrive?" she asked.
"Two days, if we are lucky. Three if we aren't."
"Then we need to use every weapon at our disposal, begging with fear." She smiled slyly. "And that, King Marcus, is something we mutants are very good at."
"Mutants?" He cockled his head questioningly. "I don't follow."
"Kurt, turn off your image inducer," she ordered.
He tapped his watch. Immediately his figure began to waver before disappearing entirely, exposing the furry elf underneath. Kurt smiled, showing off his fangs. The King's eyes widened.
"Well this is interesting. Can you all do…that?"
"He didn't do anything," Kitty chirped from behind Rogue. "He really looks like that."
"I see. Do the rest of you…"
"Look like him?" Rogue finished. "No. But we all have powers that could be used to help fight. Logan has claws that can rip steel, Gambit can blow things up, and Kitty can move through solid objects. You don't even want to know what I can do."
"Perhaps you will be able to help turn the battle in our favor." King Marcus waggled a finger at the messenger, ordering him forward.
"Take these men to the armory. Get them proper battle armor and—"
"Actually we don't wear armor," Logan cut in. "Hinders our movements. Besides, I don't need it. I heal fast."
The King considered a moment, then nodded. "All right. What about weapons? Swords, axes, bows? We could use a few more archers."
"I can shoot," Kurt offered.
"You can?" Kitty and Rogue asked at once. He shrugged sheepishly.
"Agent Higgs taught me. I'm better with a rifle, but still, I can hit the target."
"Then you shall have a bow," the King declared. "What about the rest of you?"
"We know a bit about fencing," Kevin said.
"So do I," Rogue added.
"I'll see to it," the soldier said before rushing off.
"I need to go get ready." The King pointed to a set of small doors of to one side. "Those lead into a room where you can wait. Once I'm dressed for battle, and you have your weapons, we will make for the gate." He saluted Rogue with a fist to his heart before striding out the door.
It didn't take long for the soldier to return with their weapons. He gave Rogue a weapons belt to hold her sword. She thanked him, snapping the leather around her waist. The brass buckle had the now-familiar star motif in the center.
Almost as soon as they were all armed the King entered, dressed from head to toe in battle armor. There was a sword at his left hip, and a knife at his right. Rogue thought he looked better in the armor than he had in his clothes.
"Are you ready?" he asked without preamble.
"As we'll ever be," Rogue said. The King nodded. Any mirth that had been in his expression before was gone now. He was grim and business-like. "To the walls, then."
They made good time through the city. The streets were mostly deserted, save the occasional column of soldiers heading for the walls. When they saw their king most fell in behind him, and soon they were leading a considerable force.
Eventually they came to a place where the houses stopped. There was an empty area beyond them, and past that rose the walls. They were easily ten-feet deep, and taller than the palace walls. Guard towers were positioned every few hundred feet or so. Normally men would be patrolling between the towers, but now there was no need. There were enough men standing between the towers that any threat would be sighted almost instantly.
King Marcus led them up a flight of stairs to the top of the wall. Soldiers saluted the King as he passed. He returned their salutes, offering the occasional word of encouragement. They halted above the great black gates that led into the city. General Reece and his men were already there.
"Nice of you to join us, Sire," the General said jokingly.
"Any sign of them, General?"
"Not yet, Sire, but they'll come. And when they do, we'll make them taste steel."
The King nodded approvingly. "My plan exactly. How many men are—"
A low, long note pierced the air.
"What was that?" Kurt asked hurriedly.
"The Horns," Reece explained. "They've been sighted."
Rogue looked over the wall to the plains beyond.
Her heart skipped a beat.
The ground was moving. At least, that's what it looked like. Thousands of soldiers covered the ground below, a giant sea of men. A forest of lances jabbed at the air as they moved forward. They dwarfed the Paladir army a dozen times over, at least. They poured over the fields like ants, screaming battle cries as they came.
"Archers!" the King shouted, " Nock arrows!" Kurt pulled a bow from his quiver and placed it on the bowstring. Rogue saw that his hands were shaking. Archers to both sides of them did the same.
Arrows rained down on the enemy in a massive sheet. Most of the men were to far away to get hit, but a few fell to the ground in a heap. The rest kept coming at a steady pace.
"Form three files!" Reece ordered. "First line fires while the other two are loading. As soon as they loose their arrows the second line fires, then the third."
The men immediately formed three lines. Kurt fell in with them, and soon Rogue could no longer see him. Within seconds they had a constant stream of arrows coming down on the enemy. They might as well have been rose petals, for all the good they did. The men simply raised their shields above their heads. The arrows bounced off uselessly. As they came archers from the ground fired up at the wall. Screams to either side alerted Rogue to the wounded up on the wall. One man took an arrow to the chest. The sudden force of the blow knocked him off-balance, and he fell backwards of the wall.
Rogue's hands were shaking. They were almost at the wall, and she could see now that they had huge ladders to scale it with. Hundreds of them began to rise at once, most with soldiers already climbing them. The closest ladder was almost on the wall. There was a ring of steel as men drew their swords. Then, just as the ladder was about to reach the wall, an explosion rocked the air. Bits of metal flew everywhere. The ladder fell back to earth, landing on any unlucky soldiers who hadn't been able to move out of the way.
Gambit tossed another card at the ladder to their left, sending it to the ground as well. Arrows took down the men raising the great latter metal things, and they toppled down, killing anyone who was on them.
Despite their efforts several of the ladders were soon clamped to the wall, and black-clad soldiers surged blade-first onto the wall. Rogue drew her sword in time to block a downward blow from one of the attackers. She countered, slicing him across his middle. The man fell to the ground in a bloody heap. As soon as he was down more came charging after him, swords and battle axes flying. Rogue stabbed one between the ribs, then turned to take off the arm of another. A blade in the corner of her eye caught her attention. She sidestepped, the steel missing her by centimeters. Without turning she rammed her sword backwards, driving it into the chest of the man.
They came from all sides, swinging their blades with deadly accuracy. Blood soon covered the stone walls. Rogue's vision was red with it. It stained her sword, dripping from its tip.
Her arms were getting tired. The sword was fairly light, but the constant effort was taxing. Cut. Jab. Turn. Block. Kill. Those words soon dominated her thoughts, leaving room for nothing else. She fought without pause, only dimly aware of the men around her doing the same. She saw only the enemy. She heard only their cries of battle, and their screams in death.
A blade caught her arm. She cut down the man who had wielded it. Sweat dripped down her face. She dodged the downward sweep of an axe, thrusting her sword up into his belly. His mouth fell open in a silent scream. Rogue gritted her teeth with the effort of pulling the blade out. A scream rose behind her. She turned, driving her blade up to its hilt in a man's chest.
"Ausierre!" She turned, glancing around for the man who had spoken. He stepped forward. She didn't recognize him, but that wasn't surprising.
"Ausierre, the men are wondering why you haven't used the Amulet yet. Why aren't you using your powers to stop—" the soldier's eyes opened wide. He looked down slowly, taking in the six-inches of steel that had suddenly grown out of his chest. His mouth opened to scream, but blood gurgled out instead. He fell forward in a dead heap.
The man behind him smiled at Rogue, twisting his sword this way and that, as if showing it off to her.
" 'Lo, lass. Come out to play?"
He swung at her. Rogue jumped back, out of his reach. The blade swept by her harmlessly. She lunged forward, driving her own blade into his filthy little skull. He collapsed on top of the soldier he had killed moments ago.
No one came at her, at Rogue took the pause in battle to glance around. A little surprised, she discovered that the fighting had carried her away from the gates. She began jogging back, cutting down anyone who came within the reach of her blade.
King Marcus and Logan were standing back-to-back, fighting off a ring of enemy soldiers that had managed to isolate them from the army. The two worked well together, but they had no hope of getting out by themselves.
Rogue glanced around, seeing a man in what she was pretty sure was a captain's uniform.
"You there!" she called. The man stabbed the enemy one last time before running over to her. At seeing the Amulet hanging from her neck he gave her a quick salute.
"Gather your men. The King's been surrounded. We need to break through their lines."
The Captain nodded. He turned to his men, calling out orders. A few dozen men joined him and Rogue.
"Which way?" the Captain asked. Rogue pointed. He caught sight of the ring of men, and nodded.
"Form a tight wedge!" Rogue shouted over the din of battle. Divide the enemies forces, make them scatter! Do not let them close in on you!"
"Is that understood?" the Captain demanded.
"Yes, sir!" cried the men as one.
Rogue lifted her sword into the air. He heart pounded against her ribs.
"To the King!"
They charged. Enemy soldiers fell beneath their swords, only to be trampled underfoot. Friendly soldiers saw what they were doing and joined the charge, screaming blood-curdling cries as they went.
They crashed into the ring of men at full tilt, hacking them apart with terrible efficiency. The enemy lines fell back, then broke completely.
"Split them apart!" Rogue cried. "Drive them back!"
Her men broke into two forces, attacking the enemy soldiers on either side to widen the gap. The enemy tried to get around them, in order to close them in along with the king. Rogue stabbed a man who jumper out in front of her, then began moving for the King before his body hit the ground.
"Rogue!" Logan ran to her. His claws and his clothes were both red with blood. She doubted that any of it was his, although King Marcus was now sporting a nasty cut across his jaw.
"Excellent timing!" the King said. He turned to ram his blade up to the hilt in a man's side. "We were beginning to have a hard time of things." He twisted the blade, yanking it out of the man with a single tug. He turned back to her, leaning on the sword like a cane. "So how have you been?" he asked casually.
Rogue could hardly believe that this smiling man was the same person who had seemed so grim back at the palace. He was in his element, surrounded by battle.
"Can't really complain," she said. A screaming man came at her from the side. She turned, raising her sword to take off the man's arm. Before she could bring the sword up for a strike, however, the man halted.
Two feet of steel jutting through a man's chest can have that effect.
The man's eyes rolled back into his head and he fell face-first onto the stone. The Captain yanked his blade free, wiping some of the blood off on the dead man's clothes.
"Captain Blain, My Lady," he said. "And don't mention it."
"Well," the King said casually as he swung his sword, taking off a man's arm, "what do you say we get out of the middle of these dogs, eh?"
"Ya think, bub?"
With the help of Blain's men they were able to either kill or chase off all the men who had been surrounding the King. Seeing him fight boosted the men's courage, and they redoubled their efforts. Enemy soldiers fell by the hundreds. The tide of battle seemed to be shifting.
King Marcus shouted orders, and the men complied eagerly. The odds were not as grim as they had at first appeared. The King had the men split up into companies of a few hundred each and spread out along the wall, to slow the enemies advances. Rogue stayed with Captain Blain and his men, although they followed her orders more than his. They sliced at the ropes that held the ladders to the walls, pushing them back onto the enemy.
As she and another soldier shoved a ladder back Rogue saw an explosion go off in the middle of the enemy's ranks. It was much larger than any explosion ever caused by Gambit's cards. Apparently he had found bigger and better ammunition.
The ladder fell away from the wall until it was vertical. It hung that way for a few seconds. The men who had been climbing up it desperately tried to jump off before it continued its descent to the ground.
A horn sounded. It wasn't the same as the horns she had heard earlier, and it took Rogue moment to figure out why: they were the enemy's. The low, trembling note sounded again, now accompanied by drums.
"Shiran!" a man shouted. "Shiran are coming!"
Below them the enemy forces were parting to allow them through. Unlike everyone else, the Shiran were riding mounts. Exactly what those mounts were, Rogue feared to guess.
They walked on four legs, with huge paws tipped in curved, eagle-like talons. Sleek brown fur covered rippling muscles that bulged as the creatures moved. Their necks were covered by thick manes of golden feathers. Their faces were dominated by black, hooked beaks that opened in screeching cries. Pointed ears laid flat atop their heads. Long tails flicked behind them, sporting black tufts. The creatures were as big as horses. There were hundreds of them pouring in, coming at the gates with determined speed.
"What are those things?" Rogue asked.
"Griffins," Blain answered sullenly. "They're foul beasts, servants of L'Kal. They've been known to lay waste to kingdoms. They relish in killing, almost as much as those accursed Shiran do." He glanced at the Amulet. "Perhaps now would be a good time to use the Amulet?"
Rogue was saved from having to answer by the sound of friendly horns. She recognized them as the call to rally. A pike bearing the royal standard—two swords crossed over a star—rose into the air, signaling the King's position. Rogue led the Captain and his men over the wall to the King.
"We need to reinforce the walls!" he shouted. "The Shiran are bringing in a battering ram. They're going to break through our gates! I want anyone who can be spared to guard those gates! Now!"
Captains shouted orders. Men poured down the stairs to block the gates. Looking out over the walls Rogue could see the giant battering ram being pulled by twelve of the griffins. The thing was monstrous, and would make short work of the gate. She looked up. The sunlight was fading. It was almost night. She started down the steps with Blain and his men. The King followed.
Men pushed themselves against the gates to brace them. They pressed in as tightly as possible, in what Rogue knew would be a futile effort. King Marcus must have known it also, but he didn't ask the men to stop. Doing so would be admitting defeat. The men would lose whatever courage they had left.
The gates shuddered violently as the battering ram hit. Men fell back, than rushed to brace them once more.
"Hold your positions!" King Marcus shouted to the men at the gates. He turned to the rest of the soldiers, who stood with swords drawn, preparing to face the enemy.
The King shouted orders to the men. He set up a line of pike men behind the gates, to slow the griffins when they rode through. The walls shuddered again. The gates weren't going to stand much longer.
Rogue looked up at the archers still defending the walls. She tried to pick out Kurt, but he was hidden among the ranks. She hoped he was okay. If anything had happened to him…
Rogue shook her head, forcing herself to stop thinking about her little brother. She focused instead on the trembling gates, which where beginning to crack and buckle under the force of the battering ram.
The King raised his sword.
"For our honor!" he cried
The gates bowed inward. Wooden shards flew off in every direction.
"For our people!"
The sound of the ram was deafening. A hole was forming in the center of the gates. The thick beam that ran across them to hold them shut was breaking.
"For the Abbey, the Wildlands, and the free people of the world! I am calling on you to fight for them! I am calling on you to fight for your mothers, your sisters, and your daughter yet unborn!"
The cross-beam broke completely, sending splinters over the men. The ram broke through the gates. One more hit, and they would fall open.
The King shook his sword at the sky. "I know call upon you to fight with me, to die with me, so that they might one day know peace!"
The gates shuddered, and broke. Hordes of men broke through, led by the mounted Shiran. The flooded through the sudden opening, screaming battle cries as they came.
The King pointed his sword at the charging enemy.
"For the Star! Attack!"
Twang! Kurt pulled another arrow from his quiver, knocking it to the string. He raised the bow, drawing string to cheek. His eyes found a target. One of the lion-looking creatures was running for the gate. He let out his breath slowly, pulling his hand back at the same time. The arrow left the string, seemingly on its own.
The creature stumbled and fell, sending its rider to the ground.
Kurt drew another arrow.
At the beginning he had only tried to disable the enemy, not kill them. He shot them in the shoulders, or the legs. He didn't want to kill anyone. Everything in him said that killing was wrong. The Professor had always said that nothing could be gained from killing; an eye for an eye left the whole world blind.
That was before they got Kitty.
It was just an hour or so into the battle, long before the gates had fallen. The ranks of archers had been broken by the forces swarming over the walls. It had taken awhile to slow the onslaught to the point where they could get re-organized.
While looking around for the archers Kurt had caught sight of Gambit and Kitty fighting side-by-side with a group of red-cloaked soldiers. Gambit was no longer limiting himself to throwing cards. He was using rocks that broke from the wall, helmets of fallen soldiers—anything that was handy.
Kitty was using her powers against the ladders and grappling hooks used to scale the walls. She would wait for the ladders to get within reach, then grab onto one, using her powers to phase it. The men on the ladders suddenly found themselves with nothing to hold onto and fell onto the unforgiving ground. When she came across grappling hooks Kitty would phaze the wall around them. The hooks—and the cords tied to them—would fall through the wall to the ground.
Kurt had been about to call out to her when it happened. She was turning from the wall, her beautiful brown eyes scanning the battle going on around her, when a blade suddenly exploded from her chest.
He teleported to her side, his sudden appearance terrifying the nearby soldiers. He didn't care. Kitty was on the ground. Blood soaked the front of her shirt. Kurt dropped to his knees beside her, cradling her head in his lap.
"Kitty? Are you okay?" It sounded so stupid. Of course she wasn't okay. She was bleeding.
"K-Kurt?" Her voice was weak. Distant. But she was alive.
"Kitty, I'm so sorry. You'll be okay, I promise."
She smiled weakly. "It doesn't hurt that much," she said. Her voice was raspy. "I thought it would hurt. The movies always make it look so painful. It's not that bad." She paused. "Is it?"
He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry.
"Kurt, how bad is it? And don't you dare lie to me."
He glanced down at her chest. She was torn open. Kurt fought to keep from gagging.
He forced his eyes back up to meet hers. "Not bad at all," he lied. "You'll be back to your old self in no time, Kitty-Cat." His voice broke, but he couldn't help it, just like he couldn't help the tears making their way down his cheeks. "You're going to be just fine, I promise."
Kitty smiled. "You're a rotten liar, Kurt."
"Kitty, I'm sorry."
"Not your fault. Don't blame yourself. I don't." She closed her eyes, and for a moment he was terrified he'd lost her.
His heart leapt. She was still alive.
"There's something I've been meaning to tell you."
"Kurt, I love you."
Now it was his turn to smile. "I know."
Her brow furrowed. "You do?"
Kurt nodded. "Yup. I feel the same way."
"I love you, Kitty Pryde. Always have."
She laughed. He stroked her hair softly. Her eyes fluttered closed as she let out her last breath.
Kurt's eyes stung at the memory. He no longer cared about killing the enemy. They had taken Kitty from him. Death was more than they deserved. He loosed another arrow, taking down a foot soldier.
A single tear rolled down his cheek.
Wow. Okay, that ending surprised even me. If you feel the need to flame, alright, but please keep the angry mobs to a minimum, kay? If you kill me, I won't be able to write the sequel.
42 pages. Take that, Ronin! Woo!
And that, friends, is the end of The Eye of Polyphemus. Book two, which is currently untitled, will probably come out sometime in late June or early July. Don't be surprised if its rated R.
Now the answer to the statue contest: Terry Goodkind's novel, Faith of the Fallen. Which, by the way, is my favorite book of all time. The Sword of Truth series kicks ass. You should all go read it right now. ^_- We had two winners: lonewolf and writerofmoredoom's older sister. Congrats, guys! You both get giant bags of popcorn! ^_^
OK, time for those review answers!
Rogue77: JoA rocks, no? And it comes on Fridays at eight over here. Check the CBS website, they should have showtimes.
DRAGON: I like your enthusiasm. Here's a chappy just for you. (Well maybe not JUST you…I mean, it was for a LOT of people, but you're one of them! I'm gonna shut up now…)
Lyra Eyota: yeah I liked that ending too. ^_- The banter part was a lot of fun. Made those three years of German with the psycho-Nazi-teacher-from-hell worthwhile…not that I'm ever going back, mind you!
Krazy Xanadu: Yer back! YAAAAAY!! I keep meaning to read your story…I'll do it ASAP, I promise. And I figured a CIA agent would need to know several languages. (On Alias Sidney can speak German, French, Russian, Italian…and those are just the one's I know of!"
katie: your will is my command!
Lonewolf: DING DING DING!!! We have a winner!! Yippee! Cool name, by the way. Wolves are awesome.
Writerofmoredoom's sister: FINALLY! I was beginning to think no one would ever figure it out! Kudos on being the first one. I'm glad you're enjoying the story. Hey, what does writerofmoredoom think of it?
Ishandahalf: Yes, she has control. Oh, I've added your line "quick like a bunny on crack" to my bio, cause its so freakin' cool!
UniversalAnimeGirl: Wow. Now THAT is a review! Dang! OK, first off thanks for sticking with the story. I'll be the first to admit that those first couple of chapters aren't all that great. I think I've really improved. (Practice practice!) Heh, one time I was on the bus and my friend was telling this story that included the words "what's cooler than cool?" and some Freshman in the back yelled "ICE-COLD!" Another time I was talking about the Ghetto Queen (Crazed Maniac 02's fic, 'Screwed in Shizzam') and the guy goes "Afro-Man!"…now Afro-Man has a cameo in my Sonic story…LONG LIVE THE RANDOMNESS! OK, Rogue will NEVER be Ms. Happy Sunshine, although she may occasionally be Ms. Touch-me-and-that-hand-will-never-touch-anything-again. (I love Trinity! Matrix is awesome!) Now her personality is going to change some in this story, but it'll be more a result of just growing up and maturing than anything else. You might detect a hint of the Rogue from the old cartoon just because I'm such a fan of that version. But don't worry, the Goth will still be…well…Gothic. You know I never finished the Hobbit? Or Return of the King, I'm sad to say. Tolkien is hard to wade through. The movies are excellent though. And ANYONE who likes my fic should watch Alias. Jennifer Garner is AMAZING. I'll try to work on the homonyms. 'Of Beast and Blade' by scribbler. Got it. Between that and 'Annihilation' by afternoons should be pretty full. ^_-
Anee: OK I know your review was fo chapter 7 but what the hell? Yes, Gambit has lots of cards. He's a little weird that way.
The Last Ronin: 42 pages. Promise made, promise kept. OK as far as the Romyness I just couldn't help myself. Besides, what would you do if you could suddenly touch after yeasrs of being doomed to a life without human contact? Huh, huh! Oh, I said you were closest 'cause you guessed it came from one of my books. Then writerofmoredoom came in and blew your response out of the water, so…no popcorn for you. Now where's my poem? Pay up, sucka! (Oh, you REALLY need to read the XME fic 'Annihilation.' It's a Rogue-centric AU story that rocks. Its on my favorites list. Well, what're you waiting for?!)
Spicybear: Is this soon enough? If not…there really isn't anything I can do about it at this point. ^_^
Thank you all for reading and reviewing. Your support has kept me going when I normally would have abandoned this fic long ago. Thanks for keeping me in line. Your praises and helpful criticisms have meant a lot to me these past few months…I can't believe this is the last chapter.
Well, keep your eyes open for book two. Until then, I'm outtie.