The wind blew in from the north like the frigid breath of death. Itshowling tantrum disturbed powdery layers of new snow on the northern slopesof the Himalayas, blowing almost as much crystallized white through the crispair as the storm the night before had managed to dump in all its frenzy. The storm had traveled east, was more than likely plaguing Lhasa or somefurther eastern settlement by now. It was a bad season to risk the highlands. The weather was treacherous and the passes indistinguiable from the raggedspine of the mountains themselves. The natives knew better than to attemptthe high trails in the winter. No sane Tibetian strayed so far from thesafety and warmth of his home when so many unforgiving blizzards prowledthe great range. It was only the dread of something more terrible than naturethat might make a man brave the heights.
Creed had killed two of the small, brown skinned highlanders before theremaining guides had succumbed to the wisdom of following his commands. Thatleft three of the rugged, wind toughened Tibetans to lead him west alongthe highest trails the grand old Himalayas had to offer. He hadn't mindedthe slaughter. The warmth of blood on his hands and the fever of the killserved to thaw the layer of ice this place had cast over him. The kill alwaysheated the blood in his veins. It made him hunger for more blood, for theeuphoric feel of his claw-like nails ripping into the soft flesh of prey. The feel of hot intestines oozing over his hands. But, he held himselfback from finishing them all, even though they stared at him with hate anddisparity from their squinty, black eyes. They thought he was a beast, amadman. A creature that was only half a man; more an animal, an extinctand vicious brute who as soon kill them as endure their irritating presenceone moment longer.
But, he needed them. Creed needed guides, for as uniquely suited as hewas for the climate and the hardships of this land, he did not know the passesand the hidden trials and the ancient legends that passed from generationto generation among the Tibetan peoples, that hinted at the place he wantedto go. The place he was being paid handsomely to find. So he didn't killthem.
He stood staring up the steep, snow covered side of a mountain, snowblowing in his face, melting on his skin, with his parka open and his hoodback. His guides cowered behind him, bundled from head to foot in thick coatsand hoods, shivering in the frigid air. Creed breathed it in, broad facealight with the challenge of one more great mountain to defeat. Ice crystalsglinted in his blonde brows and hair, his breath made a thick fog of vaporbefore his face. He made up two of his guides in size and weight and yetwhen he moved there was a powerful, feline grace about him. There was abouthis features also something vaguely feline. Not delicate like a small cat,but heavy and lethal like one of the great wild cats; or more liken to someextinct ancestor of the lion. A sabortooth. That, the movement, the coloring,the utter savagery of his attack with his claw like nails had gained himthe name more people knew him by than his given one. Sabortooth. In thecircles he moved in, it was a name to shiver at.
He snapped at his guides to move, and the small figures sidled past him,ponderously making their way up the slope through snow up past their knees. There was a trail up there, past this ridge that was hardly more than legend. He had it on good account that it was more than legend. That it was thereand that it led to a place very few human beings now alive had ever visited. Not that any one would find great benefit from traveling all this way, throughall this miserable and cold terrain just to see a bunch of baldheaded, Tibetanmonks. Only the man who was currently footing the none to small bills forthis jaunt would have any desire to collect something monks had coveted foryears, for himself.
'Course, Creed didn't much care why he wanted the artifact as long ashe got paid, and paid well. And for trekking though this much snow and icehe was getting a bundle.
The incline sloped sharply upwards and Creed dug his boots in, walkingalmost vertical in his ascent. The guides had roped themselves togetherand they were dark forms ahead, figures made hazy and indistinguishable bythe blown snow. Creed refused the rope link. He trusted his own abilitiesmore than the puny strength their human chain offered. Snow trickled downfrom the track they had made. There was a yelp up ahead and the lead manlost his footing as a sheet of snow gave way, sliding down the slope in acrumbling sheet of purest white. When the lead man went he jerked the secondand third off their feet and they all went tumbling down, human flotsam mixedwith the snow.
Creed snarled in exasperation at their clumsiness and snagged a bit ofrope between the second and third climber and with it in hand leaped backout of the way of the disembarking snow. Three men were jerked in his wake,as though their combined weight were a pittance. Creed grunted, standingsplaylegged in the snow with his guides scattered about him, and glared atthe roughened area of slope as if it had done him some personal insult.
He called the guides foul names and jerked them up. They climbed slowlyto their feet, sluggish from the tumble and the dread cold, muttering fearfullyamongst themselves. He slapped one on the back of the head to get them moving,and slowly they began the climb to the ridge.
The only thing that betrayed the existence of a trail under the snowwere the evenly placed standing stones that flanked it along the top of theridge. Creed felt, with a lifetime's worth of horned predator's senses thatthe prey he had hunted all these weeks was close at hand.
His guides needed to make camp when the sun began to creep beyond thehorizon, making long shadows on the slopes. The heat fled with it, whatheat there was at any rate. The Tibetans chattered on about freezing duringthe night if camp was not made and a fire built. How far, he asked them,did this trail run? How long till they reached their mysterious destination.
Close, they replied. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day, depending onweather.
Sabortooth grinned. His teeth were sharp, white points. Almost as sharpas his claws. He didn't need their services anymore, if what he sought layso close.
Blood spattered the snow, but the darkening shadows ate it up and thebodies were swallowed up by the powdery top layer of new snow. That snowmight never melt. Might forever hide evidence of what lay below. Sabortoothcontinued down the ridge trail, immune to cold, intent on his destination. There was blood on his fingerless gloves. He idly licked it off as he went.
He might have missed the temple altogether, sat as it was against therock face of a sheer mountain side, but the rays of a rising sun reveledlines and shapes to organized to be the design of nature. The ridge trailcurved up towards what could only be an ancient and time weathered Buddhisttemple. For all the gray severity and crumbling facade, it might have beenabandoned ages ago, but Creed's sharp eyes picked up the pin point glimmershere and there along its facade of flickering torches.
The trail wound up and eventually under the snow his feet trod upon carvedstone steps. He could just make out the angular shape of steps leading sharplyupwards. He climbed up a hundred or more, before the snow dusted away, sweptoff by human hands perhaps, and the going got easier. A hundred more. Twohundred. Three. Zig zaging up the sheer face of mountain and finally leadingunder a cold stone archway into darkness. He paused and sniffed the air. Air so clean and frigid that lungs shivered in ecstasy. No human scenthere. Just stone and earth. He rummaged in his pack and pulled out a small,hand held device. He flipped it on with one thick thumb and a grid cameto life on its face. Ah, there it was. Close. Close enough to feel themoney he would get for retrieving it.
* * *
Shimmering, white capped waves rushed the beach in rhythmic, orderedadvance, as if they had some military goal in mind. It was an unstoppableforce, the ocean, eating away at the beach grain by grain, bit by bit. Oneday it would win, and this beach would be nothing but sea bottom, and thegraceful, sandy bluffs beyond ridges for the fishes to dart around. Everyoneknew, sooner or later, California would drop into the sea. Rogue only hopedshe wouldn't be around when it happened. She wasn't a big fan of disasterflicks. Earthquakes, volcano's erupting, tidal waves wiping out cities andthe like just gave her a hard, coiled feeling in the pit of her stomach.A feeling that she couldn't shake for hours and sometimes days after seeingthe horror of natural disaster depicted on the big screen. The power ofnature flat out scared her sometimes, awed her at others and amazed her atbest. Sitting on this Californian beach, way down the coast from the crowdedshores of Malibu, she could watch the power of the ocean and think.
Nature made her wary, just as all unchangeable things did. Rogue wasa woman who liked to control her own destiny and yet fate had thrown herthe ultimate loop of being powerless over her own self. Oh, not powerlessas most folks thought of the word. She was no lilting southern flower thatcouldn't take care of herself. She was far, far from that. It was morepersonal, more heartbreakingly tragic than that. She pulled bare legsup, wrapping her arms about them and resting chin on knees. She stared outover the Pacific, reddish hair curling about her face and shoulders, a fewwispy white strands from the streak of white running down the center standingout blatantly from the darker auburn tangling with them. A bulky sweatshirtcovered her torso, half concealing a pair of white shorts. Her sandals layin the sand a few yards distant, forgotten as she curled her toes in thesand.
She hated disaster movies. She hated tragedy. She didn't know why she'dgone to see the matinee of Titanic except for the fact she'd been bored andeveryone else was at the conference and she'd heard wonderful things aboutthe romance of the picture. She did so love romance. One had to love whatone could only look upon from afar. And after three hours of sitting through an incredibly moving romantic disaster movie,crying whole heatedly for the last half hour, she'd just had to go off andbe by herself.
She had come here, far away from the clamor of civilization to mournher own fate. Melancholy was not Rouges natural state of mind, and whenbouts of it hit her, she immersed herself wholeheartedly in the sensation. She was so alone. So cordoned off from the rest of the world. It hurtso much not to be able to ever express one tiny bit of intimacy with anotherliving being. Never to touch, skin to skin, even as a careless gesture ofwarmth. Of all the mutant abhorations for a body to be cursed with, thishad to be the worst. She'd rather be disfigured or inhuman. At least thensome poor desperate soul could hold her when she was feeling this down.
Homo superior. Ha. That didn't matter much when she was always so isolated.
A soft laugh drifted down the beech on the breeze. She looked throughwindblown locks of hair to spy a couple walking through the surf towardsher. She made a smaller ball of herself, a tiny bit of flesh and bone thatwas only an afterthought against the dune of sand behind her. They walkedby, caught up in each other, arms around shoulders and waists, occasionallysharing a whispery caress or kiss.
Rouge shuddered, sighing and wished she'd never gone to see the movie. Wished she'd had the patience to sit through the professor's speech at theWorld Mutant's Rights Conference. But, as impassioned as she was on thesubject, she'd sat through four days of it already and was mightily tiredof the never ending verbal battle. There was a hell of a lot of oppositionout there. A hell of a lot of people who would just as well see all mutantswiped from the face of the earth, as if they weren't living, breathing inhabitantsof mother earth also. As if they had no right even being born. As if they'dchosen to be the way they were.
She should have gone to the conference.
Heads turned, mostly male, and followed the graceful figure of OroroMunro. She stood out amongst even the flamboyant, beautiful people thatwalked the sunset strip. She was exceptional in every way, from her statue,to her creamy chocolate complexion, to her startlingly blue eyes, to theflowing, pristine white locks that crowned her visage. She was used to theattention. She had been a goddess once, to a tribe in Africa. She was mistressof the elements of weather. A mutant power that she controlled and usedwith all the sanctity and reverence as if it were her religion. To a certaindegree, it was. It was part of nature and to Storm, nature was everything.
This city, with all it's harsh lights and abrasive people was not sograndiose, despite all of it's fame. Still she'd had to venture out andexperience it. One gained everything from experience.
A thin oriental boy in baggy cut offs and a ragged T-shirt sporting thelogo of some hard rock band came at her, riding the concrete wave of sidewalkon his skateboard. She hesitated, as he barreled at her. At the last momenthe swerved, rocketing around her, laughing. She turned her head to see whatother pedestrians he played at kamikaze with, and was in time to see himsuddenly and brutally snatched from the board and held up by a man scarcelytaller than he. Feet kicked frantically, voice lifted in indignation, inempty threat, while skateboard continued on down the sidewalk.
"Ain't ya got manners?" the man, though short, could not be consideredsmall. His bones were thick, and his body broad and muscled. There waspower hidden behind loose chinos and baggy sweatshirt. The gleam of naturalpredator lurked in black eyes. Thick black side burns reached almost tothe jaw, and coarse hair swept back from his face in a widow's peak. A cigarettedangled from broad lips. When he smiled at the struggling kid, his teethwere almost sharp.
"Lemme go, man." the kid shrieked. "I'll sue."
Wolverine just stared at the kid, until the boy's face paled and he ceasedhis struggles. The strip crowd veered around the disturbance as if it werenothing untoward.
"Logan." Storm called back gently. He did not glance at her, but releasedhis grip on the skateboarder's collar. The kid hit the pavement running,searched frantically for his board and disappeared into the crowd after findingit.
Wolverine sauntered up to Storm, hands in pockets, puffing lazily onhis hand rolled smoke. "Reminds me of Jubilee, when I first met her. Smartmouthed and full of spunk."
"That description, I believe, still fits."
He nodded, blowing smoke away from Storm, considerate of her aversionto it. He was a head shorter than she, and next to her people didn't payhim much heed, unless they happened to look into his eyes and then they avertedtheir own, moving quickly out of his vicinity, not wanting his attentioneven if he was in the company of a beautiful african goddess.
"Two more days of this." he complained. "I don't know if I can standthe sunshine and the glitter that long."
"Do you miss the cold, grey autum of New York, Logan?" she asked, surprised.
"Roro, I miss the woods and the solitude. I never was one for California. 'side's Chuck's said about all he can say this time 'round, and most ofthese Mutant Rights bozos gathering here are tree huggers looking to jumpon a cause. Don't matter what cause it is, as long as they get to protestin favor of it."
"Better that support than none at all." Storm said. "Every voice addedraises public awareness of the problem."
Nestled between a surf shop and tatoo parlor they found a mexican resturantwhere they enjoied a refreshingly authintic dinner. Then weeded their furtherinto the nightlife of the strip. There was an arcade, the whole front ofwhich was open to the sidewalk. A great crowd of people mulled in and aroundits environs. Every once and a while a cry of excitment rose up from itsdepths as some player or another accomplished the impossible.
Storm winced at the clammor and they bypassed the arcade. Tomorrow shewould be back in a conservitive suit, standing behind Charles Xaviar as hegave his final speech and lecture. He was the acknowledged voice for mutantrights in the world today. The acknowledged expert, and yet no one knewhe himself was a mutant. If they did, he would not have had access to mostof the ears he did. It was one thing for a respected professer to standup for the rights of the minority, if he were nothing more than a brilliant,handicapped homo sapian. If the world knew that he was the most powerfultelepath alive, then it would be another story. As it was, there had beendeath threats, bomb scares, and protests against muntants ever since thisconference had began. They had found one bomb and stopped two assassians. One feverently preyed tomorrow would go smoothly. It would make Charlesso happy if this conference ended without the violence so many others haderrupted into. But, that was why she and her fellow X-Men were here. Tomake certain of their mentors safty and to prevent the type of altercationthat in this world televised event, might turn public opinion against theircause.
For tonight, she was in the company of a dear old friend, and in a cityshe was unfamiliar with. She was content to explore and relax and let tomorrowtake care of itself.
* * * *
The skeet ball sailed deftly into the center hole for the umpteenth consecutivetime and the chain of arcade tickets already trailing and curling along thefloor, became even longer. It was house policy that any perfect game automaticallyreceived the next game free. The young man standing at the foot of the skeetball alley had parted with a single quarter of his own money at the startof this unprecedented winning streak and not a cent more. Even the bestplayer occasionally missed and hit the second ring, the management countedon that. They were sourly casting glares at the player experiencing theunusual winning streak.
"How many's that?"
The man standing behind the player looked down at the pile of tickets. One might not expect him to be relegated ticket counter. He was not a smallman or a particularly pleasant appearing one. Among this crowd of teenagersand young couples out for a night's entertainment at the arcade, he stoodout like disaster waiting to happen. He stood well over six feet and wasbuilt like the meanest of professional wrestlers on a serious body buildingkick. His hair was shaved close to his head, and his broad jaw sported awell trimmed mustache and beard. Teeth stood out shockingly white, againstdark lips and skin, but the most unusual thing about Bishop, at first glancewas the tattooed M that started above his right brow, descended over hiseye and ended just above his cheek bone.
"You have four hundred and seven, so far." Bishop replied.
"Ninety-three to go." Remy Lebeau calculated, casting a glance from underhis shades at the very large stuffed bear that he had every intention ofpresenting to Rogue. She'd been down for the last few days and hadn't botheredto hide the fact. She wouldn't talk about it either, but Remy knew her wellenough to figure she was going through a bout of rock bottom self-esteem. The girl had a tough time living with her curse. He had a tough time livingwith it, but he was a pessimist, most of the time. One day, something wouldturn up.
He finished the next game, collected his tickets and appropriated hisprize. The bear was almost half his size. He carted it under one arm forall of a dozen steps before a virtual skateboarding game caught his eye andhe thrust the bear on a scowling Bishop.
"Just one moment, mon ami." he promised. Bishop looked at the flat blackeyes of the bear, then at Gambit's back and frowned deeper.
"I can see the point in the ball game." the big man admitted. "Therewas a prize involved, but this game seems to have no object."
"Sure it does." Gambit swayed to one side, directing the actions ofthe character on the screen by the motion of the board he stood upon. "It'slike the danger room, Bishop. It horns skills - - see, I just avoided thatcar."
"What skill might those be?" Bishop asked dryly, staring at the computergenerated figure that represented his teammate. Gambit glanced back andflashed a brilliant white grin as he finished the course flawlessly and inrecord time. A crowd had gathered around to watch, making Bishop nervous. He was embarrassed to be seen carrying the bear and sat it down surreptitiouslyby his feet. Nothing embarrassed Gambit. He thrived on the attention. Heblended so well with this crowd that one might never suspect he didn't spendhis life riding the waves and loitering in the arcade. He was lilth andtan, with what, Bishop had been assured by the females he worked with, couldbe considered devastating good looks. Brown hair was caught in a tail athis neck, and more still spilled over his forehead and over his shades. Theonly things about Gambit that might suggest he didn't belong here were hiddenbehind those dark glasses. His eyes had the tendency to glow red, especiallywhen he used his mutant powers.
"Gambit, I tire of this." Bishop complained.
"Why don' you find a game and play it?" Gambit threw over his shoulder.
"It is a pure waste of time." Bishop scoffed.
"What? You wound me, mon ami. Look over there. A shooting game. Biggun, no?"
Unwillingly Bishop's eyes were drawn towards the indicated game. Therewas indeed a very big gun mounted to the front panel of the game. A sparkof interest kindled. He drifted a step towards the target game.
"Don' forget my bear."
They wondered into the lobby of the Radison at half past four in themorning. A sleepy bellboy watched them from his post but otherwise the wellfurbished lobby was deserted, the lamps turned low for the night. Bishopstill carried the large pink and white bear. Gambit was having a hard timecarrying himself, having imbibed a good deal of liquor at the establishmentof ill repute that he had convinced Bishop to accompany him to after theyhad left the arcade.
A 'strip joint', Gambit had explained to him, as if upon entering andseeing exactly what the female employee's of the place were doing, he couldn'thave figured it out for himself. Bishop might have come from a very grimfuture, but he was not an idiot. There were such places in his time, onlythey were by far more dismal and called 'flesh mills'. And he might have gotten as many scathing remarks and provocative looks goingto one of them as he did at the one this night in this time, had he carriedthis particular bear with him. He had only had to punch two burly bikersbefore the rest subsided. Gambit thought it was all highly entertaining.
Gambit had been the center of attention for a bevy of shooter girls,some of whom had attempted to share their bounty with Bishop before his scathingglare had warned them away. As a result, Bishop was stone sober and Gambitcould barely navigate the spinning glass doors leading into the lobby. Heonly rebounded once, before he made it though the revolving door, and Bishopwaited on the other side to grab a lapel and jerk him out before he endedup back outside.
Gambit grinned hazily up at him and mumbled something in French. Heleaned in against the bear, using it and Bishop as support. Bishop gloweredat the bellboy who watched them with a quirky grin on his face.
"Well, ain't this a sight." A lilting voice remarked from the alcovesheltering the bank of elevators. Bishop winced and Gambit perked up, zeroingin on the voice and the shapely form of its owner.
Rogue stood waiting for an elevator, sandals dangling from her hand,head tilted curiously as she watched them navigate the lobby.
"Chere'." Gambit pulled at the bear and stumbled a few awkward stepsbackwards when Bishop released his hold on it. He approached her with theoffering, only weaving slightly. She eyed it and him dubiously. "What'sthis?"
"I won it for you."
"You did?" she blinked in pleased surprise, then looked past the bearbeing thrust in her face to Gambit's smiling countenance. Her green eyesnarrowed.
"What's that on your face, Remy?"
He stared uncomprehendingly. "What? Where?"
"Right here." she reached out a gloved finger and wiped a smear of redfrom the side of his mouth. "It's lipstick." she accused.
"Non!" he said, aghast. She held the finger with the smear of brightred lipstick right before his eyes.
"Yes." she shot back, then glared over his shoulder at Bishop and showedhim the evidence as well. "What were you two doing all night? Ah can't believethis." She stomped her foot so hard the marble tile under her heel splintered. "You can take your bear, Remy and you can - - you can - - Ah don't carewhat you do with it." she shoved the bear and subsequently Gambit back withthe palm of her hand. He flailed backwards into Bishop so hard the big manactually staggered a few steps trying to catch him. The bear, cheaply madearcade prize that it was, split open, spilling fluff onto the lobby floor.
Rouge vanished behind polished brass elevator doors.
"Well," Bishop remarked dryly, setting Gambit on his feet. "that wasnot well done."
"I don' have lipstick on me?" It was more a hopeful quest for reassurancethan a denial.
Bishop frowned at him, stepping past to push the elevator button. Gambitwiped his face with the back of one hand. A smear of red came off.
"Where that come from?" He stared at the miraculous appearance.
"I would imagine any one of the overly endowed, what was it you calledthem? shooter girls? who spent half the night in your lap feeding you alcohol,might be held responsible."
Gambit didn't respond. He let the bear drop from his hand and the poorsplit thing lay on its side, forgotten on the floor while he leaned his foreheadagainst the wall between banks of elevators, muttering curses or prayersin French.
"Perhaps," Bishop said, as the doors slid open. "we should have stayedand played target practice longer."
On this, the last day of the gathering for mutant rights, the talks turnedtowards a more scientific nature. The meeting hall was filled with listeners,but today they were of a more educated nature than those that had gatheredin the last week. Only the scientific community could have followed thelecture by the renowned mutant, doctor Henry McCoy. Hank McCoy was one ofthe most abnormal appearing mutants loose in the world, with a broad muscularbody covered from head to toe in thick blue fur, facial features more reminiscentof an animal than a man, and the agility and boundless energy of a simian,but people, normal people, strangely enough had to fear of him. Perhapsit had been his stint as an Avenger, a team that could do no wrong in theeyes of the public. Perhaps it was his charming good will, his dedicatedenthusiasm for research in both Homo sapian and Homo superior matters. Perhapsit was merely that he seemed such a cheerful, cuddly creature that peoplejust liked him. Regardless, the Beast, the codename he'd taken for himselfmany years ago when his mutation first began to effect his physiology, wasone of the few trusted mutants, in the minds of the American public.
On the podium he was excitedly talking about the gene structure of certainmutant deviants, using a long pointer to tap at the slide screen behind him.
Storm only half listened, more interested in the conversation her mentorand the founder of the X-Men, Charles Xaviar was having with a middle aged,bifocaled woman at the back of the hall. Storm was immaculate in white,tailored suit, her hair caught up in an elaborate African knot on the backof her head. She stood behind Xaviar's wheelchair, one slim brown hand restingon a handle, the other absently rubbing an onyx broach at her lapel.
This woman was an old colleague, who wished Xaviar to join her for dinnerthat evening. He seemed pleased at the suggestion. Storm was happy forhim, Charles had too few events in which he functioned socially. Everythinghe did was for the cause. For the Team.
Applause drew her attention and Xaviar's back to the podium. Beast hadfinished his presentation and was bowing ceremoniously. It was a fair estimationthat most of the people here had only vaguely grasped the concepts he hadrattled on about, but they celebrated his performance nonetheless. The bluefurred doctor bounded off the stage with all the limitless energy of a three year old in a toy factory, his lips pulled back in a grin that revealeda mouthful of sharp and very predatory appearing teeth.
"Well done, Hank." The professor praised, then indicated the woman hehad been conversing with. "You know Professor Keyes?"
Hank bowed deeply, the hand holding his notes swinging dramatically behindhim. "Not personally, but I have had the pleasure of reading several ofyour papers."
Doctor Keyes smiled somewhat nervously at the intimidating blue visagegrinning down on her.
"She and I are old friends. We'll be having dinner this evening."
For a second, Hank's face fell; his brow furrowed in dilemma. "Oh, my. I was hoping to get back to the mansion this evening and delve into someof the fascinating new data I've collected here."
"Ah, I know your eagerness when faced with new information. Take theBlackbird back with whoever wishes to return home today, and I'll catch aflight tomorrow."
"No." Hank hesitated. "I couldn't leave you - -"
"Nonsense." Xaviar insisted. "I've a great deal to discuss with Dr.Keyes."
"Go on, Henry." Ororo decided the matter. "I shall stay here with Charles. Go find Logan, I believe he is more than eager to return home."
With Storm's presence an assurance of Xavier's safety, there was littlereason for Hank to hesitate in taking the offer. He grinned and startedto bound off towards the main lobby.
"Henry." Storm called after him, a prompting note to her tone. Shetapped her wrist when he turned curiously.
Oh, the image inducer. In his enthusiasm he forgot that outside the auditoriumfilled with people who did understand and support mutant rights there wasalso a convention for auto insurers and the rest of the world who might bea bit disgruntled by his appearance. He waved at her, flicked the switchon the otherwise common seeming watch and the blue furred Beast was replacedby a stocky, broad faced man in a tweed jacket and thick rimmed glasses whostood out no more than any of the other researchers who mulled about theauditorium.
Of course Wolverine was ready to go. Logan harbored a distaste for theplastic reality of the more affluent West Coast cities. Hank was surprisedthat Gambit was up for an early trip back to the dull hills of Winchester,though. Until he found out that Rogue was all packed and ready to go home,then Gambit's decision made more sense. Bishop opted to stay and play bodyguard with Storm, which was no surprise at all. The man lived for duty. The man breathed, ate and slept with duty, which made him sometimes a lessthan charismatic personality, but garnered him a good deal of grudging respect.
The Blackbird, every sleek black aerodynamic inch of her, put every otheraircraft on the private field just outside of the city to shame. She satoff in a corner of the airfield, like a predator in wait, soaking up theafternoon light like shadow swallowing color. Hank finished the last exteriorcheck before ascending the boarding ramp and sealing it tight behind him.
Rogue had positioned herself as far back in the passenger cabin as possibleand stared morosely at the seat back before her. Gambit was trying to talkto her, his voice a heady whisper. Hank's sharp hearing picked up a wordhere, a word there. Enough to know that he was trying to apologize for somethingand Rogue was astutely ignoring his attempts.
Logan was in the co-pilot's seat, a half smoked cigar dangling from hislips. Hank gave him a disparaging look. The Blackbird was an official smokefree area. Logan shrugged. "It's out, Blue. Just feels good where it is."
Hank hopped over the arm of the pilot's chair and settled into the coolleather of the seat. He began preflight warm-up even as he buckled seatbelts.
It was one O'clock now, with the Blackbird's mach capacity they wouldbe back on the east coast by six at the latest.
Smooth take off and the soothing sounds of Mozart and Hank settled backfor a peaceful flight. Logan was a silent presense at his side, and Gambithad ceased his attempts to draw Rogue into conversation.
It wasn't until they passed over the green farmlands of Kansas that thepeace was broken.
* * * *
Creed straightened the lapels on his Armani blazer. Beige coat overa white silk shirt. Silk felt good after two months smothered in deep coldinsulating gear. Creed liked the finer things in life, even though he thrivedunder the most miserable of conditions. He cast a look at his image in apassing mirror. Ran one large hand through wavy blonde hair and admiredhimself. Rugged face. Cruel mouth and roman nose. Not a pretty face, butone that damned sure got second looks from the ladies.
The one he was following now, sort little oriental thing with hips likea boy and face like a geisha kept casting nervous looks over her shoulderat him. She had met him at the door of the estate. Sprawling grounds andold, old house about an hour's drive outside of Kansas City. He'd been thereonce before, when he'd taken this job. She'd been here then too. Had donemost of the interacting between him and her boss. His boss. For the timebeing, anyways. Old house, and dark and furnished like somebody only livedin it about six days out of the year. Big empty hallways, and rooms offthe side with no furniture. The sound of their footsteps echoed on the marbleof the hallway floor.
She took him to the same room he'd met her boss before. Huge marblegallery at the end of the hall. Tall, draped windows lined the far walland only a single candelabra lighting the room. Her boss liked it that way. He liked the dark and the silence.
Creed could have cared less what the man liked or didn't, save that hewas paying him an extravagant amount of money. Only thing that botheredhim about the whole situation was the man's scent. Or lack of it. He couldn'tpick up a thing from the man. Not a damned hint of cologne, of bad breath,of body odor, of anything a normal human being exuded. It pricked a vaguebit of curiosity, but not enough to turn down the job. Creed had workedfor stranger birds.
The gallery was not the empty space it had been the last time he hadbeen here. There was a stone pedistal in the center and the floor had beenmarred with the lines of some sort of runes. The man stood behind the pedistal,robed and shadowed, hands hidden beneath the folds of his sleeves. He lookedup and the hood shifted minutely, allowing a fleeting glance at his face. Stern, lined features that seemed insubstantial and flickering, as if theman beneath the robes might wink out of existence at any time.
Creed dug into his pocket and extracted a baseball sized polished stone. It shone dull lavender in his hand. It had blazed blue almost when he'dtaken it from the temple in Tibet. He held it out, displaying it for hisemployer to see.
The girl moved to his side and gingerly took it from his hand. He lether. His money had already been deposited into his accounts. He didn'tcare if they decided to play stickball with the thing. As if she were handlingthe most precious of objects she approaching the pedistal and placed theorb in a crevice that had been made to fit, then backed gracefully away andstood outside the rune lines. It seemed to slowly change from lavender toa blushing pink.
"So," Creed said, since no one else was doing much talking. "Our businessis done."
"There is one more thing." the voice that drifted out from the hoodwas as eerily disembodied as the flesh seemed to be from the reality of theroom around it. "One more task that needs doing."
Creed shook his head sharply. "Sorry, but I've got other commitments."
"No. This must be completed."
"Get somebody else."
"This orb must be taken to its counterpart, otherwise the merge cannotbe achieved." the man said as if Creed had not just told him in no uncertainterms that he was unavailable.
"Like I give a shit. You paid me to get the thing and that's all."
"Take this orb to its brother in the temple of Kashar and join them andyou will be released from obligation."
"Man, you don't listen." Creed was getting a bit agitated at the man'sobtuseness. He was not in the habit of being ignored when he said a thing.
The robed man lifted his hands and the rune lines began to glow. A waveof distortion raced up one line and down the other. Creed felt the powerin the follicles of every hair on his body. He was being duped. He hatedto be duped. He let out a roar and charged the man behind the alter. Hehit the pedistal the exact moment the wave of power completed its circuitof the rune lines. The orb was displaced and what had seemed a smooth relayof power turned catastrophic. The girl screamed behind him. The man inthe robe ceased to be. The robes fell into a heap at Creed's feet like thewicked witch of the west after too close an association with a bucket ofwater. The wave of distorted power blossomed upwards like an inverted funnel,growing the higher it went. A mile, two and into the outer atmosphere beforethe orb hit the floor and vanished.
Creed never knew it was gone. Creed never knew what hit him, becausevery suddenly there was nothing but darkness and water and disorientation. It was going to be a very bad day.
* * *
"What the hell?" Wolverine was jarred out of his nap and almost out ofhis chair as the Blackbird rocked in the air as if she had hit one motherof a patch of turbulence. He cast an annoyed glance to the Beast, who wasfrantically attempting to get the aircraft back under some semblance of controlwhile at the same time trying to read something the onboard computer wasspitting out at him.
"There's something. . ." Hank started, then had to put all effort intocontrolling the jet. "There's a distortion. A power surge of enormous proportionscoming up from below." Hank looked as if he wanted badly to abandon flightcontrol and concentrate on the computer.
"What's going on up there?" Rogue was half out of her seat despite theturbulence that had the Blackbird trembling like she might be torn asunderat any moment.
"Strap in." Wolverine snapped over his shoulder. He looked at the samereadings Hank was ogling, but could make neither heads nor tails of them. Science wasn't his gig.
"What's causing it?"
"The computer can't seem to get a lock on the source, but - - -"
Then Hank's voice trailed off into a gurgle of startled vibrations asthe jet pulsed and shook with more violence than she had yet experienced. Wolverine's vision went screwy. His fingers clenched the armrests of hisseat. It felt like the bones would be shaken right out of his body. Thenose of the jet wavered, went indistinct and blurry as if it had passed througha thick sheet of water that progressed up the nose and towards the body ofthe plane.
"Pull up." he tried to yell to Hank, but his voice was lost to the clamor. Then the sheet of disturbance passed the coc-pit and he lost all awareness- - -
- - - - Black. Black. And the sound of wailing. Wind whipping violentlypast, tearing at clothes, at hair, at skin. He came to slumped over thearm of his chair, warning lights flashing frantically on the panel beforehim. They were the only lights visible. The windshield showed only inkyblackness.
One quick glance to his left showed the Beast unconscious. Another tothe instrument panel before him showed a dangerously low altitude and thejet doing a smashing imitation of a swan dive. Wolverine grabbed at thecontrol stick, pulling back with all his strength. The jet fought him, thewind ate at him. Damn, was there a rupture in the fuselage? He couldn'tspare a look back to find out. She was damaged that was damn sure. He feltit in the sluggish way she handled. The nose didn't want to come up. Hefought it with all the indomitable will of his namesake and the Blackbirdgrudgingly complied, but only before her belly scraped on what might havebeen tree tops.
A wing caught at something and Wolverine thought, This is it, as thejet spun out of his control and hit with a bone breaking impact. Then skippedand hit again. He heard the distinct sound of water. They had gone downin water. One last jarring impact and he was thrown forward against hisseat belt so hard he felt ribs break. He cursed soundly, ignoring the painand searched on the darkened panel for emergency lights.
There. Red lights blinked on. He snapped the release on the seat beltand half lost his balance as the Blackbird tilted. There was water rushinginto the craft. He could hear its greedy gurgle. What damn lake in Kansashad they crashed into?
"Logan?" Rogue's frightened voice from the back. He saw her rise fromher seat, her figure a shadow barely outlined by the hateful red of the emergencylights.
"Gambit?" he asked.
"'M o'kay." The cajun's voice. Shaky but alive. He turned to Hank,who was still out, but was beginning to moan. The jet trembled, a slow languorousjarring compared to what they had just been through, and began to invert. Water flowed into the passenger compartment. Rogue exclaimed. Logan ignoredher, going to Hank's seat belt and pulling the considerable bulk of the Beastout of the chair. The tail end was sinking fast, pulled down by the weightof the engines.
"We're going down, darlin'," He had the Beast's arm over his shoulders. He had to hang onto the back of the pilot's chair to keep from sliding downto the back of the passenger compartment. "You want ta see about gettingus out of here?"
"Oh." Rogue said. He heard her moving back there, the sloshing of bodiesthrough rising water. Gambit moved up beside him, grasping the back of theco-pilot's chair. Rogue moved between them, feet not even touching the floor. She floating up to the broad windshield and warned.
"Protect your faces."
Then, hands on the glass she pushed outwards. The shield splinteredin a thousand webwork cracks, but did not shatter. It merely popped outof its molding to be tossed to the side by Rogue. She floated up anotherfew feet, then reached down and extended both hands.
"Give me Hank."
Wolverine lifted him up and she took him effortlessly. "Y'all need ahand?" She asked.
"Not yet." Gambit answered.
"Come back for us when he's safe." Logan said.
She nodded and disappeared straight up into the night sky. When hadit turned so undeniably night? Gambit scrambled up over the control panel,a little awkward in his movements, favoring one arm. After a landing likethat a body tended to hurt. Wolverine still hurt like hell, even thoughhis healing factor was kicking in and mending his abused ribs. He followedGambit up and over the nose, then slid down the rounded side and droppedwhat must have been ten feet into the water.
Black water. Black shore, if there was one. He swam with no particulardestination in mind, only wishing to get away from the Blackbird as shesank. Fifty strokes. A hundred. He turned onto his back and paddled fora while, just able to make out the dark shadow of the jet's nose as it sankbeneath the equally dark surface of the water.
"You there, Lebeau?" He asked, because Gambit wasn't making much noiseswimming. He hoped the kid had the sense to get away from the jet beforeshe sank.
"I'm here." Gambit's voice drifted to him from the right. He soundedbreathless and strained.
"You all right?" Logan sat out towards the voice.
A pause, then. "Mostly. Shoulder's just a little messed up. Belt caughtit when we crashed. Out of place, maybe."
"We can set that right." Logan assured him, and closed in on a body. Gambit was lazily floating on his back, one arm held against his body,the other out for balance. But it hurt, that was clear.
"Maybe we could use Rogue's help now, after all." Gambit suggested.
Wolverine stayed close, treading water, scanning the sky for something- - anything. But it was all inky blackness. Not even a glow of moonlightfrom behind clouds. "This is damned irritating." he muttered.
It seemed like forever, stranded in the middle of a black, God knew whatsize lake, or river or ocean. Then the faint, reedy sound of Rogue's voicedesperately calling.
"Remy? Where are you? Logan?"
"Here, darlin'. Over here."
She followed the sound of his voice, until she was a dark shape hoveringover them. "There's a shore a ways over there. But let me tell you, thisis one big lake. Never knew Kansas had any lakes this big."
"It don't." Logan said, an uneasy suspicion sprouting within him.
"C'mon. Give me your hands." Rogue commanded.
"Careful with him." Logan warned. "Dislocated shoulder."
She made a little aborted concerned noise, then figured out she wasn'tgoing to get out of this not getting wet. She sank down into the water nextto them and wrapped her arms around Gambit, and let Logan wrap his arms abouther neck, then took the lot of them skyward. The water let them go witha suckling pop. They trailed remnants as she ascended some forty feet, thenflew slowly forward.
"Where'd you leave Beast?"
A long pause. "I don't know. I tried to keep track of which way I wascoming back, but I got all turned around looking for you guys."
"Was he conscious?"
"Den it's a good chance dat little spot of fire way over there mightbe him." Gambit suggested.
Sure enough there was a small speck of flame way off in the distanceto the left. Rogue veered that way and sped up. The shore approached. Athin dark beach that only made itself visible due to the pile of burningtwigs and debris situated some twenty feet from the waterline. The beastkneeled before it, feeding it more bits and pieces of driftwood. He lookedup as they came out of the darkness, surprise erased by relief on his mobile,furred face.
"Ah, I thought you might have been lost at sea and I cast in the undesirablerole of Robinson Curiso. But with all of us here and well, I think we mightbe better suited for the Swiss Family Robinson."
"How'd you get that started?" Rogue touched down. She let go of Gambitand he half stumbled, then went ungracefully to one knee in efforts to sitdown.
"Umm." Hank looked distractedly from Rogue to Gambit. "I've extensivelystudied the rigors and codes of the Eagle Scouts. Are you all right, Gambit?"
"Why didn't you say somethin'?" Rogue complained before Gambit couldanswer.
"Thought you weren't talkin' to me, chere?" he muttered.
"I'm not." she agreed. "Don't mean you gotta be a fool."
"I wasn't being - -"
"Shoulder's out of place." Logan clarified to the Beast.
"Oh. Well if that and my pounding headache are the extent of our injuries,then we seem to have made out commendably. Considering we've just surviveda plane crash caused by dubious circumstances."
"Umm humm." Logan agreed. "You want that fixed?" he inquired of Gambit. Gambit nodded miserably. Prodding the shoulder with his left hand, Logantook the arm in his right and without foreplay jerked the ball back intothe socket. Rogue hissed in sympathy. Gambit merely ground his teeth andmuttered a curse in French under his breath.
Logan took a breath, then sat back wishing he had a smoke. The packin his pocket was undoubtedly soaked beyond repair, as were the matches tuckedin the package. He looked about, squinting to make out shapes caught withinthe sphere of their fire. The beach a few feet further out was gravely,formed of small pebbles rather than sand. The ground Hank had built hisfire upon was hard and graced with tough, long grass. There were scatteredpieces of driftwood lying about, as if some recent storm had washed a greatdeal of the stuff ashore. Inland there was a darker line of what might havebeen trees, but no lights of civilization shown from anywhere around thelake or beyond.
"So, any speculation on just what the hell happened?" He finally askedthe question they were all aching to voice.
"I couldn't get all the readings." Beast said defensively.
"Yeah, piloting the jet and all." Logan agreed dryly.
"But, from what I did ascertain. On the ground below us some sort ofenergy field was triggered, causing a wave of distortion to shimmer acrossour direct path."
"A wave of distortion - - as in distortion of what?" Logan asked.
"I don't know. Time. Space. Dimension. Reality. Your guess is asgood as mine - - well, probably not that good. The instruments on the Blackbirdweren't able to discern the exact nature before we crossed the wave and endedup here. Where ever here might be."
Rogue had moved just out of the circle of light, arms wrapped about herself,staring out across the lake. "What's that?" She asked softly.
They followed her gaze. Far out across the water was a light. A faintpulsing light that seemed to grow weaker with every passing moment. TheBeast rose to a crouch, then hopped over the small fire and joined Rogueat the edge of the beach. "My, my. It seems there might be something elseout there."
"Could be the Blackbird." Logan suggested.
"Only one way to find out." Rogue declared. She rocketed up and overthe lake. Only seconds passed before her figure was swallowed by the darkness.
"Wait," Beast called out. "We don't know what's out there."
"An' she call me a fool." Gambit muttered under his breath.
* * * *
It was cool out over the black water. A wind blew in from the oppositeshore bringing with it the smell of pine. There was forest over there too,though there was no seeing it. She'd never seen a night so black. A skyso devoid of any heavenly bodies. It was unnatural and frightening. Shehad the sinking, terrible premonition that it wasn't her nightsky. Thatit was foreign and entirely unwelcoming in its bleakness. A friendly skywould have stars or at the very least the hint of clouds. Not merely a dyingpulse of light hovering over open water.
Her mind thought - ghost lights. She recalled legends of paranormalphospherescents floating down foggy railroad tracks and above swamps. Asshe flew closer the faint luminescence revealed the outline of a structureand the tiniest glimmer of gently lapping wavetops around it. She slowedand hovered above what looked very much like a large round bell tower witha light at its apex. Only about twenty feet of it stuck above the waterline, but there seemed to be parts hinted at under the surface.
Rogue blinked in astonishment. It couldn't really be a bell tower stickingup from the middle of a lake. She flew closer to the light. It was a glassencased flood light that was almost out of juice. The dropped a few feetlower to look below the roof.
Something came out of the darkness of the interior and slashed past herwith enough force to knock her out of the air and into the water. She cursedand rose up, fingering the shredded material of her blouse. The somethingthat had attacked her had claws. Wary and on guard she circled the belltower, but nothing showed itself. She had half decided to fly back to shorewithout further confrontation when it came at her again. This time it hadclimbed atop the bell tower roof and launched itself at her from just belowher position. Claws tried to rake her again and a low voice snarled.
"You can tell your master, bitch, that I'm not playing his game."
Then the body dropping away, ripping a gash in her slacks as it wentand hit the water below. She looked for it - for him - from the sound ofthe voice, but could see nothing. Listened for the sound of splashing abody would make treading water. Nothing. No dark head breaking the surface. No sound other than the waves lapping peacefully against the stone of thebell tower.
* * * *
"Well there ain't a whole helluva lot we can do till light. Might aswell set up camp. Set up a watch and see what morning brings." That wasLogan's pragmatic advice.
"I would dearly love to have access to the Blackbird's computers." Hankwished vainly.
"Yeah, well ah'm not sure I can dredge her up for you, sugah." Roguesat by the fire, knees up, hair drying in the scant heat of the flame.
Remy's shoulder hurt. The ribs on the other side hurt, caught by thelower part of the seat belt, but not, thank the fates that looked out forfools and thieves, broken. He could not at the moment think of anythingto add to the discussion. He wanted a smoke so bad he could feel the cravingall the way to this bones, but his pack was in the process of drying on therocks by the fire, as was Wolverines. The matches were a loss, but thenagain, he didn't need matches.
He looked across the fire at Rogue and wished he could understand hermoods. Might as well wish them out of here, while he was at it. He hadabout an even chance of realizing either one. She could be tough as nailsin some things, and then some little nothing wounded her to the quick.
She looked up while he was watching her. He didn't look away.
"How's your arm?" She asked softly, a hopeful tremble in her voice thatsaid she wanted an opening, was perhaps ready for forgiveness.
"Fine." He grinned faintly, lifting the aforementioned member to provethe point.
Beast sat not far from Remy, rubbing his temples, head no doubt poundingfrom the knock he'd taken when the jet hit water. Muttering to himself helay down, fingers still stroking the fur on his forehead. Remy half roseand scooted the few feet around the fire it took to get to Rogue's side.
"Don' want to disturb him while he's tryin' to get some shut eye." heexplained in a whisper. She half smiled.
"How you?" He tilted his head at her expectantly.
She shivered, pressing her arms tighter about her knees. There was arip in her pants and another set of slashes in her blouse. "Scared. I gota terrible feeling about this place, Remy. The pit of my stomach is justchurnin'. "
"We get home. If Beast don' figure it out, the X-Men find us once weturn up missin'?"
"Yeah." she agreed after a moment's speculation. "You're right. Oneway or another things'll right themselves. Always do."
"Logen's gonna sit up, why don' you get some rest, girl?"
"Why don't you? I didn't pop no bones outta joint tonight."
She had a valid point.
* * * *
Logan sat and listened to the sounds of this place. The crackle of thefire and the gentle rush of waves attacking shore permeated everything, butbeneath that were the more subtle reverberations of life. Insects clickedin the grasses beyond the shore. To the south frogs belched out their matingcry. To the east where he thought there might have been a line of forestbeyond the lake, the faint note of a night bird drifted across the otherwisemelodious strains of twilight. There was a world beyond this darkness. Itwas filled with sounds and smells like any other world. It only lacked thebenefit of stars. Logan could get along fine without the light. His othersenses were horned to an alertness that normal men would not even dream possible. In the wilderness he was predator, not prey, no matter what the circumstances.
He neglected to wake Rogue to take her watch, too wound up to sleep,and too involved in familiarizing himself with the characteristics of thisworld. He reached for a cigarette. He had laid each individual cylinderon a rock beside the fire to dry. They were as good as they were going toget, albeit a little wrinkled and bent from their ordeal. He held the tipinto the fire to light it and sat inhaling smoke.
There was a hint of color to the west. A blush that tarnished the inkyblackness of the sky. So there was a sun, maybe, that was in the processof rising. The wind changed. Came in from the east and the invisible forestand with it came the stench of something acrid. He half turned his head,nostrils flaring like a beast. Casually he put the cigarette out, pinchingits end to extinguish the fire and save the majority of the stick.
The odor came again, drifting in with the smell of pine and rotting mulch. The smell of sweat and the oils of an unwashed body. He heard, in the nottoo far distance, the scrape of a foot across stone. The slightest hintof a grin crossed his lips. He put the cigarette in his shirt pocket andwith a single economical movement melted away from the light of the fire. He let the darkness swallow him as it had swallowed whoever, or whateverapproached from the forest. Only he didn't make a sound. And whatever wasout there stalking them, did not seem to pick up his scent.
He circled, keeping the camp in sight in case something got past himand he had to raise the alarm. The blackness had turned to gray and hissharp eyes could just make out shapes in the last vestiges of night. Treesin the distance, bushes and large outcroppings of rock between the lake andthe forest. And moving shapes. Man sized shapes that crouched and skulkedlike predators going for the kill.
There were four of them and they smelled odd. Half unwashed man scent,half something else. In their hands they seemed to be carrying weapons. He could not tell what. He didn't need to know. All he needed to knowwas that they were stalking his camp and his friends and that he would notallow.
Like his namesake, Wolverine came up from out of the shadows at the closestand quickly and viciously took the stalker down. It should have been anincapacitating blow, a rock hard punch driven with all Logen's strength tothe side of the temple. But the man didn't go out. He fell, staggeringto both knees, loosing his grip on the club he held, but he remained consciousand let out a cry of pain and rage that alerted his fellows that they werenot the only stalkers about this night. Logan hit him again, without preamble,and this time his knuckles hit twisted, sharp teeth. He wanted this onedown before the others got to him. But the damn creature, whatever it was,man or not, was stubborn. An inarticulate roar of rage passed broken teeth,and hands clawed at Logan's legs. The other three were almost upon him.
Sick. They smelled of sickness, he realized. That was the oddness hehad sensed. The sickness of a rabid animal who attacks without reason orthought. That's how these man creatures reacted. Like a pack of rabid scavengers.
Click. He released his claws. Six razor sharp talons that extendedfrom the backs of his hands. Kids gloves were off. When those claws wereout, Wolverine meant business. They came at him and he welcomed it. Heslashed into their ranks with a feral snarl every bit as savage as theirown growls and cries. The smell of blood mixed with the foul odor of uncleanness.
Two went down, permanently, but the third got in a lick with his club. A glancing blow to the back of Logan's neck that sent him staggering forward,seeing bright dancing spots of light in the gray monotony of early morninglight. Then there were more lights, a bright flash of ignition as somethinghurled into the chest of the creature descending upon him with raised club. The explosion hurled the thing backwards, momentarily casting the facesof his attackers in stark, unflattering light. The creature didn't get upfrom the impact of exploding kinetic energy. The forth and final man-beastlet out a terrified squall, staring up at the heavens as if god himself hadhurled a bolt to strike down his comrade. Then he took off at a franticpace back towards the line of trees.
Rogue passed overhead, hesitated as poor morning light obscured the retreatingfigure, then sat down near Logan.
"What was that?" She was still blinking sleep from her eyes. Gambitsauntered up in her wake, absently rolling a round beach pebble across hisknuckles. It had probably been a similar pebble that he had charged andflung at Logan's attacker. Beast brought up the rear, moving with a stiffnessthat belied his normal buoyant movements. He still hurt from the crash,probably more than he was letting on. Logan frowned at him for a moment,then nodded appreciation at Gambit for the assistance.
"Don't know what they were, but they were more animal than human."
"Dey headed into de woods. Maybe dere's a camp roundabouts, or a town?"
"They didn't look like townsfolk to me." Logan wiped blood from hisclaws before retracting them. He prodded the nearest body. Beast crouchedby the innate form, gingerly turned the body over and examined the man asbest he could in the scant light.
"They seem to be human. Albeit unwashed, exceedingly odoriferous specimensof the species."
"They're sick with something." Logan said.
"Really?" Hank's voice perked up. "When it's lighter, I'll take a closerlook."
"Well, Ah'm gonna fly out over those woods and see if there's anythingworth looking at." Rogue announced. "Maybe get a bearing of just wherewe're at."
"Be careful." Gambit suggested.
She cast him a look and a dimple producing smile. "Y'all know Ah'malways careful, Sugah."
Which meant whatever tiff they had been experiencing was forgotten. Shelifted off again, torn silk trousers fluttering in the breeze of her ownmomentum.
"The one Gambit took out is still alive." Beast announced, having inspectedall three prone forms. "Although I would imagine from the labored breathingthat a fair number of ribs are broken. I want to take him back to the firewhere I can get a better look at him."
"Fine. Long as you carry him. I don't want the stench on me." Loganremarked.
* * *
"Well, there are a number of unusual symptoms, physically that I candiscern." Hank squatted over the still unconscious man-beast, the soft lightof full morning making the fire obsolete. The flames were nothing more thana reminder of what they had once been, licking weakly at the traces of woodthat still resided within the charcoal embers of the pit.
"The eyes are so dilated they're almost nothing but pupil. The skinis scaly and exhibits a fair number of boils and blisters and rashes in variousplaces. Lymphnoids are swollen considerably, and finger and toenails haveturned blue, probably from the result of poor circulation. The odor thatwe are all so very aware of, is more than the result of poor hygiene. Thereis a disease that is most likely attacking the nervous system at work here."
"They were all sick." Logan reminded him. "That mean it's catching?"
The Beast scratched his jaw with wary uncertainty. "I most assuredlyhope not, but other than that, can't guarantee anything. Of course withyour healing factor you'd have little to fear. It's only the rest of usthat might be at risk."
"Oh, dat's great." Gambit muttered. His attention shifted skywardsand with a shrug and a wave of one hand he said. "Here come Rogue."
She came in from a height and dropped straight down into the trampledarea around the remains of the fire. Her green eyes sparkled with pent upnews.