Jeremy Harper

Note – The Astonishing X-Men are the property of Marvel Comics, and are used without permission.

For OldPrydeFan, though she knows me not.

Prologue One – The Sorcerer Contemplates His Creation

In his hall deep beneath Mother Damp Earth the sorcerer leaned back in his malachite throne and with cold, agate eyes considered the force arrayed in darkling glory before him. His gaze quickly passed over the bandit-troubadour clad in crimson and gold, the great apotheosis of all bears, and the scintillating Chaos Demon before settling on the last of his assembled champions. The sorcerer's thin, black lips peeled back, revealing rotting fangs barred in the mockery of a smile. Fierce, greedy pride welled in his hollow breast as he looked at his son, armed and armored for his first foray into the mortal world. His son, brought to him by fortuitous circumstance, re-forged by his ancient, matchless craft, his penultimate achievement, who would deliver to him his ultimate triumph.

His son stood tall – far taller than an ordinary man, his shoulders broad and his limbs heroic in proportion. A deep-blue great coat wrapped about his body, embroidered with rearing golden dragons, trimmed with sable. Golden serpents on black cloth coiled up his legs. He wore knee-high, hard leather boots, and leather gauntlets encased his large hands. A hood and steel skullcap covered his head and a golden mask, wrought like the face of a beautiful youth, lips curved upwards with a mocking devil's smile, concealed his face. A broad belt, etched with gold and buckled with silver, wound around his hips. A broadsword hung at his left hip, a great knife rested on his right thigh. He stared back at his father with shining, pupil-less, golden eyes, fierce fires burning in their fathomless depths. The sorcerer smiled and nodded at his son. With his son's awesome might, dominion would be theirs.

Behind the sorcerer's champions, the zahlozhniy – the unhallowed dead – stood in neat, precise rows. Clad in filthy tatters, sabers, muskets and axes gripped in their bony fingers, ready to fight, to reave, to slay, they were his army and their numbers were inexhaustible.

The sorcerer rose, lifted his arms in benediction, and spoke, his thin, hissing voice echoing through the silence of the hall. "I have waited five hundred years, and now our time has come. The spheres are aligned, the stars are right, the key calls to me. It is time to begin. I will swallow my doom and set myself beyond all woe." He gestured at his son. "My beautiful creation, my darling childe, you are my eyes and my fist. In the New World, in the city of New York, the first segment of the key awaits, concealed from my sight. Go there, find it, retrieve it. Sweep aside all who oppose you."

His son placed a clenched fist over his heart and bowed his head. His voice was a whisper of thunder. "As you will it, so it shall be done."

The sorcerer settled back down on his malachite throne and prepared to wrench open the gate, his death's head grin gleaming in the faint light.