alienshore2

Beast and Gambit weren't coming.

Logan figured that out as soon as the troop of female archers wrecked havoc upon the pursuing warriors from atop the forest rise. They weren't among the dead and wounded at the little stream bottom. Any other time he might have circled back to see if he could find them, but burdened as he was with Rogue's unconscious weight, he had no choice but to take the route of escape offered.

His nose was still itching. Rogue's breathing was shallow and irregular. There was something coating her that gradually worsening its effect on her.

"What happened to her?" He trudged along side one of the young women from the river. She was short and stocky, with beads in her hair and fierce determination in her dark eyes. She had a square jaw, a nose that had seen one too many breaks and scars on her face. Pock marks from some bygone sickness, perhaps.

The woman glanced at him askance, wary, suspicious of his presence. He was bloody, ripped and torn and some bit of the wildness that had overtaken him back at the river might still have shown in his face.

"Might as well leave her. She got the neagrul pollen straight in the face. Nobody survives that. Probably already dead. Don't know why you aren't, touching her, all covered in the stuff like she is."

"She's not dead." Logan growled. "And I've got a strong constitution." Poisoned then. And the pollen still coated her skin. That was what was irritating him and keeping Rogue, who had the physical constitution of a super kree warrior, down. He had to get it off her.

"I need to wash it off her. Is there a stream nearby. Some water source?"

The woman looked at him, gauging, then shrugged and jogged forward to consult with a lagging group of her comrades. They all looked back at him, then a few of them split from the line to form up around him.

"There's a small tributary just east of here. We'll take you." The archer he had been conversing with announced.

"Without you and yours they'd have died back there." One of the others said. "We owe you this much."

He inclined his head. He followed them through dense forest, and soon reached a narrow, rough game trail. Between the blood and the pollen, his sense of smell was shot. He heard the sound of a small stream before the fresh smell of water alerted him to its existence. The archers stood back, well away from him and any danger of being contaminated by Rogue and watched while he dumped his teammate bodily into the stream. It was shallow, coming only up to his knees, but it was deep enough to cover Rogue's prostrate form. He held onto her by the hair, to keep her head above water, then ripped off the remains of his bloody shirt to protect his hand while he did his best to rinse the pollen from her skin and clothing.

The water was cold and stinging on his own wounds, but no blood flowed. The gashes in his flesh had already closed and began their accelerated healing process. When he had finished with Rogue he dragged her onto the shore and washed himself down, then turned, knee deep in the stream and asked the women for something to wrap Rogue in that he might carry her without danger of touching her skin. They stood for a few mute moments appraising him. Then the oldest of the trio reached into a back pack and pulled out what might have been a leather rain poncho. It was big enough, when he slipped the hope in the center over Rogue's head to reach her calves.

He nodded his thanks to the woman after he had holstered his burden once more and gruffly introduced himself. "Names Logan. This here's Rogue."

"You're not one of Aronthal's men?" The older one observed. "Stazul said you killed them too well for that."

"Aronthal?"

The woman's lips pulled back in a cold grin that held no humor. "The Warlord of Osval. The murderer, the despot, the Wizard of the world." She laughed, then and there was a note of despair in that laugh. "If you're a man and you're not plagued with the Sickness, then you either belong to Aronthal or the order of Kashar, and frankly, you don't look much like a priest, either, which makes me wonder just what you are."

"Who do you belong too?" He asked carefully.

"We don't belong to anyone, which is why you find us hiding in the wilderness like hunted animals." She snapped her mouth shut after that and concentrated on navigating the forest. Oh, yes, there were things here that a body needed to find out to survive.

"What's your name?"

She glanced back once. "Kuthal."

* * * *

He had to stop once, even his endurance pushed to the limit, in this trek through the woods with a woman slung over his shoulders. They allowed it, the small group that had stayed back behind the others to accompany him - - to lead him - - or perhaps merely to make certain he was up to no mischief in their woods.

There was an approach of clumsy feet through bramble and debris once. He heard it before they did, and casually pointed it out. Kuthal motioned the two younger women to knock their bows, and the three of them crouched waiting, until a lumbering, almost sub-human man careened out of the dappled shadow of trees. Logan could smell the sickness fifty feet away. The man creature weaved in his steps, and foam, splotched with blood bubbled at his mouth. There was not even the glazed look of feral hunger in his eyes that Logan recalled from the three at the lake.

Kuthal swore softly and rose, loosing an arrow at the staggering creature. It lodged firmly in his eye socket. The head snapped back, the body toppled forward, jamming the arrow through the back of the head. The other two women loosened bow strings and straightened, looking pale and grim.

"Wouldn't have lasted the week anyway." Kuthal said, as though attempting vindication.

"The Wizard's men have chased the plaugers into the forest." Stazul said angrily. "What does he want, sending so many into the wood?"

"What ever they wanted was south of here. By the lake." Kuthal said. "You were probably just unlucky enough to run across them when you did."

Logan listened and said nothing. This wizard sent his forces to the lake looking for something. They had come into this world at their lake and something else had come with them. Something Rogue had encountered in the dark. Too much coincidence for his tastes.

He rose to his feet and shouldered Rogue, with that movement indicating he was ready to press on. The women started out without a word. Perhaps an hours walk and the forest thickened. The trees grew closer together, and the bramble became more intertwined. It was a struggle to move through, but the women chose the harshest path. He hesitated to extend his claws and slash his way through for his guides seemed purposefully picking their own way through with great care not to damage the briars and vines that grew prolifically in their way. Then the way was blocked completely by a fifteen foot high wall of thick, twisting thorns that grew so thick that no light could penetrate its depths.

The two younger women moved towards it without hesitation. They plunged their unprotected hands into the bramble up to the elbows, seemed to find some hand holds within, and tensed muscles to pull back. With a rustle of dry vines, a section of the briar wall swung outwards. Logan was impressed. They had obviously grown and cultivated this natural barrier to guard something within. It would have stopped any animal bigger than a rabbit. Most certainly it was a deterrent to human intruders.

Kuthal slipped through the narrow opening, beckoning Logan to follow. He sidled through, and into a clearing. It was surprising to find such a space in the midst of what had been a very old, very dense forest. The clearing was circular, perhaps five hundred yards across. A few very large trees had been left standing and under and in these a community of sorts had been built. There were tents in the grass, the canvas painted with colorful symbols. Closer to the trees were more permanent structures. Small wooden huts sat in the shade of the large trees. Within the branches of the trees themselves a great number of tree houses had been built, perched on the great, thick limbs. Women dotted the yard. Women dressed in the forest garb of the archers, women dressed in ankle length, patched skirts, women heavy with child, old women, young women. There were quite a few children clutching at skirts, or hanging together in small groups watching the entrance of the archers and the stranger in their midst. There were males among the young, but as far as Logan could see there were no adult men. No male of an age over ten in the entire village.

Women clustered around them curiously, whispering among themselves, asking questions of Kuthal and her two companions. A group of women who held themselves with the air of authority approached from the cluster of huts under the trees. Logan stepped closer to Kuthal and said.

"I feel an interrogation coming on. Can you find me a place to put her before it happens?"

Kuthal grinned at him and nodded. "I think you've done your duty to her this long day. Give me a moment, I'll let them know they can talk with you after your friend is settled."

She was true to her word. They stared at him as if he were the most dire thing to enter their little village in years, but they let him past with his burden without a word. Kuthal led him to a tent. It was teepee shaped, and dyed a sky blue, with intricate beadwork and weaving decorating the outside. Kuthal held the flap open for him, entering behind him and pulling back the top blankets from a low pallet.

Carefully, he laid Rogue down. He studied the pallor of her face, the slow rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was a tangled, curling mess about her face and beneath her shoulders. Kuthal squatted behind him, watching him watch Rogue.

"I can not believe she lives." The woman whispered finally. "Negrul is the deadliest poison we know of. Just a smear of it on the skin and a grown woman will die in minutes. How foolish she was to blunder into a patch of it."

"She didn't know." Logan said, voice low, as if he might wake Rogue from her forced sleep. "There ain't no such plant where we come from."

"Then that must be far away, indeed." Kuthal observed.

"Yeah. It is."

"And your people must be strong of body indeed for her to survive and for you too, having touched the poison on her."

He looked back at her. She was fishing now. Looking for information that he might unwittingly give up during an intimate moment. She had the look in her eyes of a woman who had suspicions she was not yet willing to voice. This whole village feared the outside world. That was clear from the cultivated wall of thorns surrounding it. They had good reason if the welcome he and his had received was any indication of the way of life around here. Barbarian conquerors on the one hand and wild, men-beasts on the other. If he was to learn anything about this place, he had to quell their suspicions.

"Your elders are waitin' ta talk to me." He rose, dusting off his hands on the bloody material of his pants. Kuthal nodded, proceeding him out. She led him to the huts under the trees, and into the largest one. A small fire burned in a pit at the back of the hut, smoke trailing up and out of a hole in the roof. Clean rushes covered the floor. A low table dominated the center of the room, and around that low curved benches with furs thrown over them for comfort.

Four women ranging from forty to sixty stood or sat in the hut. They all stared when Kuthal ushered him in. Their eyes were dark and accessing and in no way gentle or possessing womanly softness. These women, he thought, were responsible for the well being of this village and they took their duties very seriously. They were also not prone to useless pleasantries.

"If you are not a man of Aronthol's, then why have you not succumbed to the Sickness?" The oldest of the lot snapped, glaring at him pugnaciously.

"I'm not prone to sicknesses." He returned bluntly, staring her straight in the eye.

"All men are prone to the Sickness." The old one shot back.

Logan shrugged.

"Not all men." One of the others reminded the elder gently. "Think of Ruman."

"Hummph. Ruman's not a real man." The old woman sniffed, but her hackles lowered somewhat. She lifted one gray brow leeringly. "Not like this one."

"Who are you then, if you're not one of Aronthol's?" The one who had mentioned Ruman asked. She had long, graying hair in two braids down her shoulders.

"Names Logan. Me nor the girl I brought here with me have anything to do with this Aronthal. Doubt me, just talk to your two girls that horde chased down by the river."

"We have. You are a great warrior, if half of what they say is true. From where do you hail, Logan?"

"Long, long way away. You might say we were shipwrecked on your shores. I've got two more friends I left back there at the river that came with us. I've got to find out what happened to them."

"Dead." the old woman snapped. "Or captured by Aronthol. Same thing if you ask me."

"Why?" He eyed her narrowly. "What will he do with them?"

"If they don't bow down and give him allegiance - - you don't want to know." she cackled, but there were painful memories in her old eyes.

"Rakeena." The soft spoken elder cautioned.

"But, I do want to know." Logan growled.

"If you're not Aronthol's warrior, you're his obedient slave. If you're not his slave, then you're either his entertainment, which is the same as slow death. If not that, then he simply infects you with the Sickness."

"They are probably dead." The quiet one said. She had a certain degree of sympathy in her eyes. He looked to her, took a step towards her and asked.

"What's yer name, Lady?"

Almost she blushed. He had to figure these women hadn't seen a decent man in ages if the likes of him could bring a blush to their cheeks.

"Bren." she answered. "The old sourpuss is Rakeena. This is Saketha and Trulen. We are the elders of this village."

He nodded respectfully. "You've got my gratitude for letting me bring Rogue here. I won't let you regret it. But, I've got to go back to the river and see what became of my friends."

"Waste of time." Rakeena said. Logan ignored her.

"The Plaugers have been driven into the forest by Aronthol's patrols." Bren said. "It is not safe to travel the woods now."

"I can take care of myself. I can find my way back on my own." He assured her. "You don't need to risk any of yours. All I ask is that you take care for my friend while I'm gone."

They exchanged looks. Rakeena muttering 'fool' under her breath. Then Bren beckoned Kuthal in among them. "We cannot in good faith as hosts allow you to travel back to a place of such danger alone. Kuthal is our master hunter. She shall lead you and see your safely back."

Logan grinned at her. "Darlin', if it makes you happy."

* * *

Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny showing up in this damned inconvenient place, ringing bells and chanting to the dali lama would not have surprised Creed more than Remy Lebeau and Henry McCoy did, being dragged through the narrow streets of Osval. He could not, in his wildest imaginings begin to understand what the X-Men were doing here. He had only a partial comprehension of his own presence in Aronthol's domain. He was not entirely clear how he had gotten here - but he had a glimmering it had to do with the damned orb he'd trekked through the frigid hell of the Himalayas to retrieve. One had to figure that his move back at the old man's house in Kansas hadn't been the smartest one he'd ever made. Destroying whatever device his employer had been activating had seemed to have a negative effect. Instead of the warm feel of blood on his hands, he got ripped from one reality and thrust into the cold dark truth of another. He should have just ignored the old man and strode out - overtop of the little chickie who'd ushered him in if necessary. If he had a failing and Creed did not admit to many, then it had to be a occasional rashness of action that sometimes worked against him. 'Course he always made the best of it. He always landed on his feet. Even if the ground he landed on was muddy and rush strewn and most definitely alien.

Gambit and the Beast didn't seem as if they'd had so soft a landing. Not that that mattered much, save for the nagging curiosity of what they were doing here. It was interesting to watch the Cajun slip his bonds and wreck a little havoc. More so to see Aronthol's reaction. Aronthol was the old man who'd employed him. He hadn't been so solid in Creed's world. Just a faint echo of the man who sat that grim throne of bones, but it was him. Creed could smell him now. Could taste the power of the man. What had been a shadow of Aronthol in Kansas was a blast of omnipotence here in this backwards, brutal world.

His men were morons. Carnal and violent without the true skill of a predator, of a hunter to back them up. They relied on weapons and numbers and the fear that bullies inflict upon the hapless to make them powerful. Creed was better. Gambit and Beast should have been better, but the barbarians had numbers on their side. Creed had slipped in amongst their numbers with none the wiser. Had accompanied them to this crude city and let them lead them to the man responsible for his being here. To the man who would know how to get him back home. And wizard or not, god help that man if he refused the favor.

He stayed in the background and watched the interplay between Wizard and X-Man. Watched Gambit get his wings clipped and Beast vainly try to insert a modicum of reason into the situation. They had Aronthol stumped a little - with good reason - but he still had his goal focused. He still knew who he was really looking for. No reason then, not to give the man what he wanted and let the chips fall where they might.

With supreme confidence, he stepped forward, shouldering his way through the ring of men surrounding the dais and announced himself. Beast looked back in shock. Aronthol stood. Gambit responded a little slower, looking shocky and pale, wrists held close to his chest. He waited for all the principle players to recognize him before pulling back his lips in a menacing grin.

"Liked your place in Kansas better. This one reeks of puke and shit."

"Kansas - - ?" McCoy stuttered, looking from Creed to Aronthol and back again. The Wizard stalked past him, close enough that his robes brushed blue fur. "Where is it?"

Creed's grin widened. "Where you ain't gonna get yer hands on it. Not less I want you to."

Aronthol's eyes seemed almost to glow in agitation. The silence in the room was deathly. The Wizard's men had no idea what was expected of them. Afraid to move, afraid to speak - damned surprised than a man in their garb, who had come in with their numbers was confronting their master in such a belligerent fashion.

"You dare - ?" Aronthol was almost sputtering in indignation. He lifted a hand as if he might strike Creed down like he had stuck down Gambit. Creed tensed, figuring if he dodged he would only incite the warriors around him into action and then have them to contend with on the one side and the wizard on the other. Hell, he might even be able to get out of here relatively unscathed, but that wouldn't solve his problem of getting out of this world. For that, he needed the Wizard - or at least the wizard's knowledge. So until he found someone else who could tell him what he needed to know, Aronthol had to be played.

"Yeah I dare, old man." He sneered. "You screwed me over and NOBODY screws over Sabortooth. You want that orb, you damn well better deal with me."

Aronthol hesitated. He was realizing that if he did strike Creed down, then he might never get his hands on the orb he had gone to so much trouble to get. He was also realizing that confronting Creed here, in front of his men, was causing him to loose face. Creed loved it. He savored the expression of comprehension that crossed Aronthol's face as he realized he was between a rock and a hard place. With a snarl, the Wizard waved a hand about the room.

"Out! All of you. Take him - " he pointed at McCoy. "- to the west tower. Him -" this time he stabbed a finger at Lebeau. " - put with the dogs."

Creed grinned. Gambit came out of his shock too late to avoid the hands that grasped at him, caught him and man handled him towards the cages lining the chamber. A half dozen slavering, growling dogs rushed the bars and the men beat them back before unlocking the door and thrusting Lebeau inside. He went down to his knees in straw and dogshit, and the pack swarmed over him. Creed would have liked to stay and watch, but Aronthol had whirled and was stalking towards an entrance hidden in the black drapery behind the throne. He paused and impatiently beckoned Creed to follow.

With a last regretful look at the kennel cage and the frenzy within, he sauntered after Aronthol. There was a long stone hall behind the curtain. Thirty feet and no windows, no doors, just dark walls and a floor that was nothing more than a rusting metal grate over something fetid and moldy smelling. Smelled like sewage. Creed was used to some pretty repulsive things, but one of the drawbacks of his superior sense of smell was an aversion to this degree of foulness. He wrinkled his nose, lips pulling back in distaste reflexively. There was a door at the end of the corridor. Aronthol opened it and disappeared within without waiting for Creed. He left the portal open.

For this place, it was a lavish room. Rich tapestries lined two walls, the other sported a window with dark glass panes, the fourth a book shelf. There was a desk, immaculately kept, and a thick sofa. There were two doors leading out in addition to the one opening into the throne room corridor. Aronthol sat behind the desk, staring at Creed impassively. He had retrieved his composure. He was back to being the all powerful wizard and warlord. Creed wasn't impressed. He strolled to the book shelf, carelessly running a sharp nailed finger along the spines of what were probably priceless volumes. A thin scratch marred the gilded spines.

"You oughtta clean this dump up." He suggested. "Smell turns even my stomach."

"Where is the orb?"

"Safe."

"I paid you for that orb."

"Yeah. Then you thought you'd pull a fast one on me and you lost it again."

"Do you realize what you risk in angering me?"

Creed lifted a thick, blonde brow. "You don't scare me. Go ahead, waste me if ya can - which I doubt you're able - and then you'll never find your precious little orb. You want that back, then you're gonna do whatever it is you do and send me back home."

"To do that, I need the orb, you fool." The wizard slammed his palms on the desktop.

"Yeah, right. You know, I betcha you ain't the only one around here who knows how to get me back. I could just waste you here and now and find somebody else."

"I should have known better than to entrust a mission of such importance to a common thug." Aronthol spat.

"I ain't common." Creed was hardly offended. He was amused and excited. A blood lust heated his veins. It would feel so good to rip into this arrogant old bastard. To feel his lifeblood spurting over his hands. Aronthol must have seen it in his face, because he rose defensively, hands outstretched.

Creed snarled and leapt. He made it half way across the desk before he slammed into a force that radiated heat. He rebounded, Aronthol staggered a step backwards as though the impact on the shield had jarred him. Then he gathered his bearings and spoke a line of gibberish. The heat pushed outwards, driving Creed backwards.

"Fool." the wizard cried. "If you will not see reason on your own, I will strive to teach it to you."

The skin on Creed's face seemed to blister. His eyes felt like they were boiling. The pain, he could endure, he'd endured far, far worse, but the forcesheild that accompanied the heat drove him step by step backwards. At the open doorway into the corridor, he decided enough was enough. Time to make a retreat and gather his resources. He could come at the old man some other time.

"You can't teach me nothin'." he snarled, before turning and sprinting into the corridor. His feet came down on nothing. His body twisted, trying to compensate for a floor that was no longer there. The grate was gone, dropped away and below it was darkness and stench. He fell, groping for handholds. A good ways down and he hit water. It was not deep enough to make the impact painless. He plunged down ad hit rock bottom and came up covered with tainted water. He howled his outrage, hesitating not at all before leaping up, trying vainly to secure a handhold in which to climb up and out of this pit. There were none. The sound of rusted metal scraping against rusted metal signaled the grate being closed.

"You lousy, cheatin' little fuck!!" he screamed up, then followed the epitaph with a string of curses. For a moment after the last echoes of his rage had passed, silence reigned. Then Aronthol's voice drifted down.

"You'll find the tunnels to be quite unpleasant and quite inescapable. When your attitude has changed, if you live that long, then perhaps we might talk again."

"Fuck you." Creed cried, but by then Aronthol was gone and there was nothing but the smell and the sound of rodents scampering and scraping along the edges of the thigh high water to keep him company.

* * * *

After a night and a day and an evening drifting back into night again, Logan was starting to feel the need for sleep. He ignored the niggling little plea and pushed on. There were things that needed seeing to. Situations that needed correcting, if that was possible. Dead that cried out for burying, if that was the case. He hoped it wasn't, but in the back of his mind, death was always a possibility. He had seen so much death in his long life, had so many friends and comrades die, while he lived on and on, that it hardly surprised him anymore. But that toughening of the mind hardly stopped the worry and it hardly ever diminished the grief.

Kuthal jogged at his side, just as quiet as he was. She was a born hunter who had never left the forest. He was a born predator that left and came back and repeated the process more times than he cared to remember. They had given him a buckskin shirt. A man's shirt that was too long in the arms and too tight across the shoulders and chest. He didn't ask where they'd gotten it. Didn't care to know if it was booty from the dead or leftovers from some woman's husband or brother or son. Anyway you looked at it, the man who had once owned it was no longer living in the village. The elder, Bren, had offered him a knife to protect himself. He had turned it down. They had all lifted brows and exchanged looks at that, thinking him a fool, or a man with a death wish. The old one, Rakeena, already thought that of him.

They covered ground faster this time than before. Unburdened, he needed no rests. He hardly needed Kuthal's services as a guide. Once Logan had traveled a path, he never forgot it. A deer darted across the game trail they were following, terrified brown eyes darting at them in surprise and terror, and changing its course mid-leap to run away from them. They froze, the both of them, each knowing that had been no normal action of a deer grazing in the forest. Something noisier than the deer crashed through brush and bramble. A human figure staggered out onto the path, attention fixed on the fleeing haunches of the deer. Foam and bloody saliva dripped from a gaping mouth. The skin was riddled with boils and grim filled scratches. Clothing was almost gone, torn off, rotted off, pulled off in the man-beast's attempts to get at irritations.

Kuthal drew in her breath softly beside Logan. She nocked an arrow and sighted on the creature poised before them. The mad eyes noticed the movement. The face turned towards them, and the mouth widened in a inarticulate cry of senseless rage. Beneath the dirt, the filth and the derangement, it was the face of a boy. Sixteen perhaps, younger maybe.

Kuthal loosed the arrow. It flew true, and before the boy had taken a step towards them, the shaft embedded itself in his eye. He crumpled. Kuthal remained unmoving, bow still extended, empty fingers still trembling by her jaw. Her breathing was shallow and harsh. There was a hint of moisture at the corner of her eye.

"That was a kid." Logan said softly.

"I know." She answered. "I knew him once."

She lowered the bow. He stared at her, wondering if he ought to be appalled. Then, as his nose picked up the stench of sickness radiating from the body, figuring that no, she had done what needed to be done. He would have done the same.

"Who was he?"

"Kyrkal. He was my sister's son."

"God, woman." He whispered. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. He's better off." She wiped the back of one hand across her eyes and started to walk.

"What the hell is going on here?" he was overdue for answers. "What was wrong with that boy?"

"You don't know?" She almost laughed, the sobered, shrugging. "The sickness. The plague. Aronthol's revenge against the world. He says it's retribution for those that refuse to worship him. He says that his is a God-given right to lord it over the rest of us. I suppose he's right. The dark gods favor him. They give him and his immunity from the sickness. The sickness must be godsent, because the only men that are not affected are the priests of Kashar up in the mountains, but they never come down among us normal folk. To get their benediction you have to make a pilgrimage up the slopes of Wintervag mountain and give your life over to them. Those they accept never come down.

"Wonderful choice, huh? Slaves to Aronthol or servants to the god of Kashar. Those of us who chose neither live out here."

"Only women? Where are your menfolk?"

She turned hollow eyes back at him and laughed. "There are no menfolk. The sickness takes any man who doesn't get benediction from Kashar or Aronthol. Once a boy reaches puberty, its not long before the sickness takes him. There's nothing to be done. No cure. All you can do is watch them turn into animals before your eyes. Worse than animals, because even animals have the sense to take care of themselves, not to just blindly kill whatever stands in its path. Women aren't affected. Mostly. A few here and there. Just as a few men here and there don't fall to the sickness. I guess you must be one of those men."

"Guess so. So if you don't have menfolk, then where did all the children I saw come from?"

"Where do you think we come from? Most of the women in our village have escaped from slavery of one sort or another. Most of us would rather take our chances in the forest with the Plaugers than serve Aronthol or his lot. The life of a woman in the Temple isn't much better. The men there have a limited view of a woman's place. Most of us in the village don't look fondly on a life of servitude, to god or wizard."

"I can understand that."

"Of the women that come to us, most are escaped from Osval or some other of Aronthol's holdings. A fair number are pregnant. We hope for girl children, but the fates are not always kind. The boys - - we love them while we can. But when the sickness falls upon them, there is nothing to do but turn them out or kill them. Sometimes we can't do the latter, although it would be kinder. We leave the decision up to the mother."

"Hard life."

She looked at him as if she didn't know there was anything else. In this world, he guessed there wasn't. He couldn't think of anything to say after that. Kuthal didn't seem to want to talk further. In companionable silence they continued on. It was almost dark by the time they reached the river. Kuthal brought a sort torch out from her pack and lit it by striking flint to stone. The oil soaked tip easily succumbed to flame. It served the chase the impending, pitch darkness away.

There were bodies along the shore. Twisted, still corpses who had already fallen prey to scavengers. He walked among them while Kuthal watched the line of forest for predators. There were perhaps eight, nine dead men. Some with arrows sticking from their bodies, other with wounds inflicted by his claws. None of them were Gambit or Beast.

"They're not here." he said. He kept his relief at bay, figuring that his friends were far from safe, wherever they were.

"Then Aronthol has them. If they're smart they'll bow to him and receive his benediction, other wise he'll let the sickness take them. That is unless they have the same immunity that you do?"

He shook his head. "How long does it take? To get sick?"

"From the first symptoms? Three - four days. A man that's not too far gone can receive benediction and recover."

"What's this benediction?"

Kuthal shrugged, beckoning him back towards the cover of the forest. "A ceremony that takes place the first day of each full moon. All vows are renewed to Aronthol. His men distribute his benediction in the form of wafers that every man must swallow to avoid the sickness."

This place just got better and better.

* * *

Remy had his back to the wall, one shoulder against moist, rough cut stone, the other against the bars of the kennel cage. The dogs kept their wary distance, two yards distant, watching him. Waiting for a sign of weakness that would allow them past his guard. One of their number lay dead between him and them, its thick neck broken. Its body still twitched. The dog nearest its hind legs worried at a foot with its teeth.

Remy shook. He couldn't stop it. He wanted too. He tried to convince himself this was not the worst situation he had ever found himself in, that the dogs were sensing the weakness and soaking it up. But his wrists throbbed. Not a painful throb anymore, but more of an all invasive awareness that there was something on him, trying to work its way into him, that was foreign. It was violation of a sorts and he couldn't stand it.

With a sort of quiet panic he worked at the bands encircling his wrists. His fingers, normally so nimble, seemed clumsy and useless now. There was no seam. There was no separation between extrinsic material and skin. It was as if the stuff had pervaded into his tendons and bones. In desperation he slammed his wrist against the wall. Pain. It hurt, just as if there were nothing between wrist and stone. Again and again he hit it and the dogs looked on curiously, ears flicking up and down in their curiosity of their new kennel mate's eccentricity.

It began to sting and when he looked he found he had made a scratch, a shallow gouge that leaked - - oh god, oh god - - that leaked blood. Reflexively he brought it to his mouth, tasting the substance, just to make certain. Blood. His blood. He shut his eyes for a moment and cradled the wrist.

The straw rustled. The patter of claws. The biggest of the dogs made a lunge for him. He grabbed a bar with his good hand and kicked out, catching the brute in the muzzle. The dog yelped and backed off. Blood mixed with the drool dripping from it's jaws. The others growled and nipped at it. It in turn snapped back at them and a skirmish began for dominance. It ended with the big dog still alpha and the others settling down to wait their human kennel mate out.

They were between him and the cage door. Even if he could get to it, he wasn't sure he wanted to take his attention from the dogs long enough to worry at the lock. So he sat in his corner and waited, forcing the shock away and the numbing horror of the things on his wrists. He couldn't function as long as his body and mind rebelled against Aronthol's bonds. And he had to function. Not to in this place was death.

The dogs lifted their heads, looking out towards the chamber. A distant, echoed howl drifted up through the grating on the floor. A low growling began in the kennels and the dogs began pacing nervously. Something splashed through water below. A heavy body pounded under the grates and soon the sound faded with distance.

He didn't want to know. He really, really didn't want to know. He wanted to know where Rogue was. He wanted to know that Logan had gotten her to safety. He wanted Hank to reason their way out of this, if reason was possible. He wanted the damned bands off his wrists.

* * *

Rogue opened her eyes to a shadowed figure bending over her, reaching out a hand to touch her face. For a moment all she could make out was firelight behind making a silhouette of a slender form. All she could comprehend was the hand that would touch her skin and give her things of that person that she in no wise wished.

She cried out, and slapped the hand away, scrambling up from the soft place she had been lying and up against a canvas wall. The figure backed away, startled. Rogue's eyes adjusted somewhat. A girl. A girl in a buckskin dress and beads in her hair. A place she didn't know. Her stomach threatened to rebel. It lurched and made her head spin. She did not wish to be helpless in a place so unfamiliar. With an inarticulate sound she rose, darted around the girl and practically took the tent down in her evacuation. The girl let out a cry behind her, running to the tent opening and calling out to others. Rogue didn't discern what was said. Her head was spinning to badly to take the time to listen carefully.

People ran towards her. There was fire light all around, making the night alive with its warm orange glow. The sky above was black like a monumental spill of India ink. But in that blackness there was cover. She launched herself skyward. Vertigo assaulted her. She hovered, some thirty feet above the ground, level with the pluming foliage of several great trees that dominated a large clearing where all the fires were burning. Both hands she brought to her face, curled in her hair and pulled, trying to bring back some sense, some control over her balance, her nausea. She heard cries from below. Saw in her spinning vision dozens of dark figures scattering about the clearing line ants rushing to repair their shattered hill. It was almost laughable. She giggled, then sobbed, demented in her disorientation.

In the fire light she saw them aiming weapons at her. Bows and arrows. She laughed the harder and tears streamed down her cheeks. They were going to shoot at her with arrows. Foolish, foolish people. Women. They were women in the darkness. And smaller forms that the older ones tried to shoo into flimsy tents. The little ones were too curious, too eaten up with desire to see the miraculous flying woman to heed matronly advice.

There were children here. And only women with bows and arrows to defend them. Her vision grayed. Darkened at the edges and tunneled to a single narrow speck of vision. The ground came up at her. She hit hard on a shoulder - a hip and lay there, breathing. Just breathing and trying so very hard not to throw up. She heard the murmur of voices closing in on her and wondered what she had gotten herself into.

"What is she?" A childish voice asked and was hushed by several older voices.

"Is she a demon of the wizards? Did you see her fly?" The children could not be silenced. They never could, in the long run.

"She fought for us." Another older voice said. "She has the strength of many men. She survived the neagrul poison."

"But she flew - -"

"Hush." Another voice said. "We promised Logan no hard would come to her and it will not."

Logan? Was Logan here? She opened her eyes and fought to focus on the forms surrounding her. Not to close, they were not that reckless, but near enough for her too see them in the wavering fire light that permeated the whole of the village. Women indeed. Women of all ages and children peeking from behind them. Half a dozen bows were still nocked, but the arrows were pointed at the ground. She took a deep breath and forced the nausea back. The dizziness receded somewhat with it. She propped herself up on one hand and sat staring at the vigilant faces surrounding her.

"Where is this? Where are my friends?"

A middle aged woman with long braids took a step closer to her. She folded her hands nervously at her middle. "Logan has gone on a quest. He will be back. He left you in our care."

Logan had gone on a quest? What about Remy and Hank? She blinked up at the woman. "Where - - where're the others?"

"They were not as fortunate as you." The woman smiled sadly down at her. Another older woman stepped up behind the first.

"They're dead girl. As you should be, after blundering into a neagrul patch. But you're not mortal are you? Only one of Aronthol's demons can soar in the sky."

"Or an angel. Don't forget the angels, Rakeena." An old man hobbled into the circle. He leaned heavily upon a cane. His balding head was wrinkled and covered in fading tattoos.

"There ain't no such thing as angels, Ruman." the old woman snapped. "If there were we wouldn't be living here giving our young up to the plague."

Rogue couldn't take it. She rose, staggering and lurched towards the first woman. The arrows came up, the group of women seemed ready to close in on her. But the woman in braids held up a hand to stop them.

"Dead?" Rogue cried. "You can't mean that. Where are they? Oh god, oh god, where's Remy? Show me!!" She grasped the woman's arms, and her grip must have hurt, as intent as she was. The woman only winced and spoke to her calmly.

"We don't know. That is what your friend, Logan went to find out. My name is Bren. What is yours?"

The calm insertion of pleasantries took Rogue aback. She gaped. She took account of what she was doing, laying hands on this woman, and she stepped back, dropping her arms to her sides.

"My name's Rogue." she whispered. "And Ah wish somebody would tell me what's going on here."

There was a commotion at the darkened perimeter of the clearing. Women broke from the circle surrounding Rogue and ran that way. Figures in the darkness converged. What must have been the whole of this village came out and gathered within the confines of firelight and shadow. Rogue stood where she was, waiting, breath almost stilled in her expectation. Then she was able to make out Logan in the midst of women and children. He looked dog tired. Shoulders stooped, steps laborious and dragging. He was alone. No Remy. No Hank. Panic overwhelmed her. She pushed past the women and ran to him, catching hold of his arms, staring desperately into his dark, weary eyes.

"Where are they, Logan? Why ain't they with you? They said - - they said Remy was - - that Remy an' Hank were dead?" She tasted salt in her mouth. Was she crying? She hadn't realized when she had started again.

"Darlin'. Darlin'." He caught hold of her shoulders, his fingers squeezing hard enough for her to feel. "Calm down. Getting hysterical ain't gonna do nobody any good."

"But - "

"No buts. Get ahold of yourself, girl. We didn't find them."

She stared at him, wide eyed, expectant, wanting him to tell her what was what - - afraid that what he might say would shatter her. "What does that mean?" she asked in a tiny voice.

"It means that as far as I know they ain't dead. And if they ain't dead, then they're probably working on getting back to us right now. Ain't neither one of them no fool."

No. Not like she was. Not like she felt. She put a hand to her eyes, trying to force her breathing calm. Trying to recall rationale. She just felt sick was all. Between the pounding in her head and the rolling of her stomach, she was having a hard time finding the level headedness that was usually second nature to her.

A breath. Another. She looked up at Logan. "Okay, tell me what's going on here."

* * **

Hank was in a round stone walled room some stories up in one of the fortresses towers. There were no windows. No attempt at furnishings that might make the stark chamber more appealing. There was a cot stuffed with lice and flea infested straw. There was a chamber pot that had not been emptied from this room's last occupant. That was it. He had fleas. He felt them crawling around under his fur like militant little invaders. He hated them. How humiliating to have fleas. He could think of so many other afflictions he might rather have. Fleas were just so - - dehumanizing.

Creed. Of all the people to see strolling into that mockery of a throne room. Victor Creed. A Victor Creed who just happened to mention Kansas. How much of a coincidence did a body need, to figure that the distortion they had passed through over Kansas and Sabortooth just happening to allude to having dealings with this wizard, Aronthol in Kansas, were not merely coincidence. Sabortooth had something Aronthol wanted. Some orb, if Hank's memory of the conversation between the two was correct. Creed and Aronthol were not, if he read his emotions correctly, the best of friends.

Interesting. He paced the room and tried the door. It was sturdy and bound with iron. He might have been able to break it down, with effort, but he wasn't certain a jail break would work in his best interests at the moment. There was a scrape outside. A scuffle and a muted protest outside the door. A key turned in a lock. A girl came in, bearing a tray with a bowl and a picture of water. The guard outside the door groped her from behind as she stepped through the portal. She lowered her head in embarrassment. Her arms were striped with lashes and cuts in various degrees of healing. There were bruises on her face. Her eyes were leaden and hopeless. Like the faces of the people in the streets outside of this fortress. Hers hands holding the tray shook with weakness.

Hank bounded forward, his large blue hands taking the weight from her. For the first time she looked up at him. Saw him. And recoiled slightly. He smiled at her reassuringly, but the sight of his sharp white teeth seemed to make her more frightened. Behind her the guard laughed.

"Please. I assure you I appear much more fiercesom that I really am."

The serving girl, didn't seem to hear him. Her knees gave way, and she caught at the door for support. Hank put the tray down with due haste and caught hold of the girl's arm. Her head slumped against his shoulder. She was hot. Burning with fever. The wounds on her arms were infected and filled with oozing puss.

"Lazy girl." The guard cried. "Stand up. Get back to work or get another whipping."

Hank bared his teeth in a grin that was in no wise friendly. "She's sick, you ill-mannered simpleton. And most likely from the whipping you so casually mention. These wounds need to lanced and cared for. The fever needs to be reduced or she may well die."

"Lazy slut deserves to die." The guard, dull of eye and neanderthalish of feature spat.

"Really? Does your master have so many that he allows you to decide which ones live and which ones die?"

The guard thought that over, the idea slowly forming in his thick head that perhaps Aronthol had not granted him that privilege. "Don't matter. Once a fevers caught, most don't survive anyway."

"Obviously you people have no clue as to how to treat so simple an ailment. Don't you have a physician here. A doctor. Someplace where medicine is dispensed?"

"Well, there's the alchemist's lab. . . "

"Ah, the perfect place. Shall we take her?"

"I can't let you out of your cell." The guard piped up.

"But you'll be with me. We're going to the alchemist's lab. You'll be rewarded for certain for saving your master's servant's life."

"But - -"

"No buts. Come on, we're wasting time."

Hank swung the girl up into his arms and between his wide girth and the girls legs, forced the guard out into the hall. Grumbling, the man proceeded him down a set of stairs and into another hall way. Then they began to climb again, obviously entering another tower. There was a thick door at the top of the steps. Hesitantly the guard knocked. No answer.

He rapped again, then turned to glower at Hank. "Nobodies there. We've got to go back."

The door opened and a tall, reed thin man looked over the guard's shoulder, saw Hank and opened his mouth in a silent exclamation of surprise.

"The alchemist, I assume." Hank shouldered past the guard, the astonished man in the doorway and into a dark, clutter filled laboratory that could have easily come directly from the pages of Mary Shelly's Frankenstien. "Is there someplace I might put this young lady?"

"But - -what? - -Who? - - Why?" The man seemed full of questions and not a coherent one in the lot. Hank looked at him levelly and with slow, careful words explained.

"This girl is fevered. She needs care. Something for the infection and the fever. You do have an assortment of medicines, I presume?"

"There are - - but not for - - nothing for common ailments. What are you?" The man followed him into the chamber, nervously wringing his hands. The guard stepped within the door and shut it, pressing his back against it, as if to keep out anyone who might witness the presence of his prisoner here.

Hank found a table covered in scrolls and paperwork and deposited his burden there. The walls were lined with shelves, the other tables with handblown decanters, vials, tubes warming over flames, vats bubbling brew of some sort or another. The containers on the shelves along the walls held a variety of dried plants, berries, powders with labels he couldn't understand, animals preserved in yellowish liquid, jars upon jars of thin, parchment colored wafers, and various other unidentifiable substances. He went for the jars with the dried plants. Immediately saw several that he recognized and might make use of and began taking them down. The alchemist fluttered around him with great agitation.

"What are you doing? You can't bring her here. I've no time for this."

"I'm going to make something to reduce her fever as well as a poultice to take the infection out of those wounds. Could you get me a clean bowl and a pestle, please."

The Alchemist stood for a moment, looking very put out at being ordered about like a servant, then his gaze focused in on the materials Hank had gathered and his mouth opened in surprise. "You'll use the Heatherwart and the Goldpuff leaves to reduce the fever?"

"That's not what I know them as, but yes."

"And the Lambs comb for the wounds?"

"Right again."

"Are you an alchemist?"

"Sort of. The bowl and pestle if you please."

Distractedly the man went and fetched the requested materials. Hank took them and began the work of grinding the dried plants into a powder.

"If you don't make medicine here, then what do you do?"

"But I do make medicine. I make the wafers for the benediction."

Hank looked up at him. "Benediction? What all those wafers in the jars along the wall? What do they do?"

The alchemist looked to the guard by the door, then back to Hank and swallowed. Then in a practiced tone of explanation he quoted. "Those are wafers blessed by the wizard himself to be given to those faithful to his rule to ward off the Sickness."

It was very much a prepared speech and very much a false one by the look in the man's eyes. Hank reached for a vial of water and added a few drops to his mixture. He looked up at the guard and suggested.

"This might very well be poisonous - - I'm not familiar with these particular herbs - - you might be better off waiting outside the door."

The man was stupid enough to fall for it. Happily he clawed the door open and retreated to the other side.

"What is your name, my good man?"

"Festule. I'm Festule."

"Ah. Henry McCoy, Festule. Delighted to make your acquaintance. So tell me about this sickness?" He set his mixture to boiling over one of Festule's flames.

"It's the plague. The punishment for those who do not declare allegiance to my lord Aronthol. All men who do not bow to him and receive benediction go mad with it."

"I believe I've run into some of those fellows. And you say those blessed wafers prevent it?"

Carefully Festule nodded. Hank smiled at him.

"You know, Festule, I believe you and I have quite a lot to talk about."

* * * *

It was airborne. Hank figured that out from the statistics Festule was able to rattle off about the spread of the nasty thing. It had radiated from one coast to the other in less than four years. That had been forty years ago. It had ravaged the land ever since. Festule had not created it. He claimed Aronthol had done that. It was a plague the wizard had created with the help of the demons from the 'other side'. Whatever that meant. Hank was not certain the alchemist actually believed that. Hank certainly didn't. What he did know was that the virus primarily effected the Y chromosome. Hence the selective infection of males only. It was spurred on by the development of testosterone, leaving young children infected, by not debilitated by it. That came later as they reached puberty. Then symptoms very much like meningitis began. A swelling of the spinal chord that effected certain centers of the brain, bringing on madness. Making mindless killers of men. As if men needed an excuse to kill. The later stages of it even brought on physical deformities, skin ulceration's - blindness in cases. The life span of the infected seemed to be about six months.

He sat looking at a bulging jar of wafers - the benediction of Aronthol and wondered at the methodology of the madman who could reduce a population to slavery by the release of such a plague. Then he laughed humorlessly, hopelessly - - reminding himself that in his own world such a madman had done much the same. Only that sickness had been targeted at mutants.

"Every month you give these out?" he turned a wafer in his thick fingers. Festule sat across from him, staring at the flame of one of his burners.

"Yes. It's all I do here. Make the antidote."

"But it's not an antidote if they have to take it every month. God, isn't there some permanent cure?"

"But, a permanent cure would not benefit Aronthol." Festule said bitterly.

"No. No, I suppose it wouldn't. But do you know of one?"

The alchemist shook his head. "No. Aronthol created the virus. He created the cure."

"How long does it take to become infected?"

"Three- four days. The benediction will cure those recently infected."

"If you don't mind, I believe I shall imbibe one of these little goodies."

"But - Aronthol hasn't granted his - -"

"What Aronthol doesn't know won't hurt him. I also need to get one to my friend down with the dogs."

"No. No. It's impossible. We could be killed." The alchemist reached out and scooped the glass jar towards him, holding it protectively against his narrow chest.

"Ah, rather the quick death of a martyr than the slow lingering one of a rabid dog."

"But there's no way - -"

"I'll do it."

They both turned, startled at the soft voice from across the room. The serving girl whose wounds Hank had treated lay on her side on the table he had deposited her upon, looking at the two. There were bandages about her arms and salve on the lesser wounds of her face and hands.

"I'll get it to him for the kindness you have shown me."

"My dear girl, you can barely walk." Hank reminded her gently.

"I've walked when I was sicker. No one ever did for me what you did. I'll help you."

"No, no, no, no." Festule was muttering.

A fist pounded at the door. The abrasive voice of the guard called through the plank door. "Master Alchemist. His lord Aronthol wants to see the prisoner. Is it safe to enter?"

Hank snaked a long arm across the table and plucked two wafers from the container. Festule's eyes grew large and frightened. He seemed on the verge of complaining, but shut his mouth abruptly when the door was snatched open and the original guard with two others at his back loomed in the doorway. Hastily, Hank rose, bounded over to the girl, felt her forehead with the back on one hairy hand, then played at adjusting her bandages. He palmed her one of the wafers, bent over her head and whispered. "Thank you."

A bit of light sparkled in her eyes, and a touch of determination. He straightened at the guards insistent beckoning and meekly commanded himself into their custody. He slipped his own wafer into his mouth as they shut the door and arranged themselves about him.

* * * *

The study smelled of smoke. Of singed fur or skin. There were no visible signs of fire. The scrolls neatly sat in their niches. The books were happily burn free on their shelves. The thick, hand-woven carpet was plush and soft under Hank's hard callused feet. The tapestries on the walls were brightly colored with an artists rendition of blood and gore. The warlord wizard seemed a little tense.

The man sat behind his very impressive desk, his black cloak slung over the back of the chair, his shoulders and chest exaggeratedly widened by the leather and metal of his armor. Why a man would wear armor in the safety of his own fortress was beyond Hank. Unless that man did not feel secure. Hardly a surprising assumption, considering that man had set a plague of biblical proportions loose upon his world. A man like that might acquire a few enemies.

He did not seem frightened at the moment. Merely irritated. One hoped he had not heard of his prisoner's foray into his private lab or the pilfering of the wafers. One hoped that prisoner would not join Gambit with the dogs. It would be so very hard to decipher a way out of this dilemma locked in a cage with a pack of slavering canines.

Hank smiled his meekest smile and demurely stood before Aronthol's desk. The guards hang at his back. He could feel their hands hovering over weapons behind him. His visage alarmed them. He did not know what it did for Aronthol, but the man's eyes lightened somewhat at his stance, and he lifted a hand to wave the guards away. They receded, melting out of the door, closing it softly behind them. Aronthol studied the Beast. The Beast tried not to meet the man in the eye. Big dogs never liked little dogs to stare them down. Aronthol was a very big dog here.

"What do you know of Kansas?" The wizard finally spoke

Hank blinked and couldn't help looking up. "We're not in it?" He said hopefully. "Ummm lots of tornadoes?"

"You spoke of it, when we were - - interrupted earlier. It is familiar to you?"

"Well. Yes. Geographically."

"You are from there? From the world that Kansas exists within?"

Ah, now they got down to truth or dare. "I am. We are. Might I jump to the conclusion that you are somehow involved in our being here. In Sabortooth's presence here?"

Aronthol lifted a brow in surprise. "You know him?"

"Ah - unfortunately, yes."

"Foul man. Blasphemous man."

"Yes and yes." Hank agreed readily. "Might I inquire as to how - - "

"How I breached the boundaries between your world and mine? I am Aronthol. I have supreme power over the world."

"Yes, I'm aware - - but breaching a dimensional boarder is no small thing. I've done some study - -"

"What are you?" Aronthol cut Hank off. "That you appear as a beast and yet talk with the tongue of an educated man? They tell me you created a medicine for a slave today."

Hank hesitated, gauging the wizards temper regarding that action. The man did not seem overly agitated. Carefully Hank said. "I am a scientist. A biochemist - - or I suppose you might label me as a sort of alchemist here in this place. A doctor. As to my hirsute condition - you might say I suffer from a mutation that has created this form you see before you. There are in my world many who have similar circumstances."

The door at the back of the room opened quietly and a girl and boy slipped into the room bearing trays. On one there was a selection of tid-bits and on the other a frosted picture of what smelled like wine. Nothing was offered to Hank. The girl, no more than twelve or thirteen. Knelt by Aronthol's side, holding the tray of hors d'doevres up to her master. The boy, perhaps sixteen, poured wine and placed the glass in Aronthol's hand before kneeling on the other side of the wizard's chair. Both their faces were passive, their eyes without light. Aronthol looked upon them as he might upon dogs. He patted the girl's head absently. She didn't flinch. Neither did the boy when the wizard transferred his hand to him. Beautiful children in a world filled with ugliness. Aronthol secreted the softness, the comeliness away for his own pleasure and left the rest of his world in smoking, disease filled ruin. And then he murdered any spirit the beauty might possess. That was the deadness in those lovely children's eyes. Hank thought, that with that momentary reaction of Aronthol's, his absent acceptance of his slaves meekness, he knew more about the man than he had gleaned through a night's pondering. This was a man who craved beauty and yet created destruction. This was a man who wanted submission so badly that he wrecked the most heinous of crimes upon his world to get it. This was a man who practiced his own form of benevolence when his subjects bowed down to him and turned in a split second into a murdering madman if they did not.

Hank felt his stomach tighten in repulsion. This was not the worst or most powerful foe he had ever faced, and yet in this place, under these conditions he was an exactingly dangerous one.

"Your world. It is a place so much more vast and wealthy than this one." Aronthol commented, distracted. "I've tired of this one and crave something new."

Hank opened his mouth. Then shut it. It occurred to him that Aronthol wished new lands to conquer. That he believed earth might be ripe for conquest. Stand in line. Of course telling him that would only incite anger - a desire to prove power and strength.

"Why haven't you gone? Surely you're capable - since you managed to open a doorway that brought us over."

"No. That doorway opened only from your world. I can only travel across the ethereal plane in spirit form. To open the door from this side, I need the orb of Kashar. To keep the doorways open permanently, both orbs - the one from your world as well as the one the priests of Kashar protect must be joined."

"Ah - that's what Sabortooth was doing for you." Things began to make sense. He began to understand what it might take to get him and his back home. He scratched behind a hairy ear, distracted by the migration of a flea. "He's not the most trustworthy of types. He hid the orb from you?"

Aronthol steepled his fingers, smiling serenely. "He will tell me where it is. He is learning the meaning of respect this very moment."

"He's rather hard headed." Hank mentioned.

"Hummm. You will teach Festule how to make the fever medicine. You will tutor him in other practices of Alchemy from your world. If your contributions are valuable to me, I will see to your comfort."

Hank dared not ask what would happen if they were not valuable. "And my friend? Might I ask for compassion there?"

"That depends entirely upon him. We shall see how a night in the kennels has affected his mood."

* * * *

The odor of roasting meat permeated the village. Wild boar graced the spit, watched over by two round bellied women. In the fire pit root vegetables and nuts roasted, wrapped in layers of leaves. Flat bread baked on griddles. Children screamed in their excitement of the upcoming feast, running at play about the village. Women hummed wordless tunes as they went about their everyday chores. The sun had reached it's zenith hours ago and slowly crept towards the tree line again.

Rogue was impatient. She wanted out of the village and on the way to forcing this warlord wizard into giving up their friends. More than once, Logan had seen her staring over the tree line, tensed, as if she might take to the sky at any moment and abandon him and this village altogether. He had advised her to patience, even though he itched to find the enemy of this land himself. He advised her to wait until they might discover more about the ways of these people - - the ways of the men they would go against, even though he might have spirited out into the forest himself and slipped unseen into the fortress of those very men, had not the plight of these women nagged at him.

So they waited, the both of them, in the village of women, while the feast was cooked and the elders convinced themselves it was time to bare their hearts and their secrets to strangers. He might have asked Kuthal, feeling comfortable in her presence, feeling that they shared a certain confidence as fellow hunters, but she had fled to the company of her sister archers - perhaps sensing just such a thing.

"This ain't right." Rogue said, when she stopped in her pacing of the village to stand over the comfortable niche he had found in the root of one of the old trees. They had given her native clothing to replace the ripped ones she had worn. Soft hide pants and a fringed leather shirt. She was taller than most of the women here, and filled out the clothes particularly well. A man couldn't help but notice.

"What ain't right?" He sucked on the next to last cigarette in his pack and looked up at her.

"All this waitin' around. Remy an' Hank might be dead for all we know and we're preparing to have supper with these folks."

"If they're dead, darlin', then there's no hurry, is there?"

She gave him a sour look. "Ah don't know how you can be so calm, Logan. Ah'm about to loose my mind."

"Years o' practice. Years o' practice. You still feelin' sick?"

"A little." she grudgingly admitted. "Just a little twinge in my stomach. Ah might even be able to eat a little something."

He nodded, taking a long drag on the cigarette and letting the silence stretch while he let the smoke fill his lungs, then blew it lazily out. Girl didn't like to admit when she was down. Another good reason for not flying off the handle.

"There's things we need to know 'bout this wizard we're plannin' on going against, Rogue. Like how many men he's got. Like why they call him a wizard. Things that might mean the difference 'tween getting our friends back or gettin' killed."

"Ah know." she dropped her head and scuffed a toe. "It's just hard sittin' here wondering if they're all right."

She dropped down onto the root beside him. "He makes me so mad sometimes."

He lifted a black brow at the abrupt subject change. He flicked ash off to the side, not bothering to respond. Rogue wasn't looking for responses just yet.

"You know what he did? Come strolling up to me, pretty as you please, with some other woman's lipstick marks all over him. Then looks at me like Ah'm crazy when Ah get upset about it."

"Went to a strip bar." Logan supplied and when she gaped at him, explained. "Bishop told me. Shooter girls - sometimes get a little too ambitious for the tip."

"God. You just don't get it, do you?" She covered her face with gloved hands, then tilted her head to peer out between her fingers at him. "It ain't never gonna be me, Logan. With anybody. Ah ain't ever gonna be the one leavin' lipstick on a man's face. Sometimes Ah just wanna die."

"It ain't worth dying for." He leaned forward, but didn't touch her. "There's more to livin' than a little bit of sex."

"Oh, from a man who can have it whenever he wants." Rogue said sullenly.

Logan chuckled. "Darlin', I wish it were as easy as that. It ain't the lipstick that's botherin' you is it?"

A long silence. She looked out into the clearing at a group of children playing at tag. At a mother carrying an infant in one hand and an unstrung long bow in the other. "No. Ah guess it ain't. Granted Ah could slap him silly for walkin' up to me with it on him, but Ah guess that ain't it after all. Sometimes Ah just go through phases. Sometimes Ah just get to thinkin' about how alone Ah am and it hurts. Sometimes Ah just wonder why he keeps chasin' me, when he knows ain't nothin' ever gonna come of it - - an I get mad or Ah cry."

"So you want him to stop?"

She laughed and wiped a touch of moisture from the corner of one eye. "God no. Ah'd die. Ah guess the only thing worse than not being able to be touched is not having anybody that wants to do it."

"Darlin', I don't think you're ever gonna have that problem."

Unexpectedly she leaned against him, hugging him. He juggled the cigarette to get an arm around her shoulders. Slim shoulders to hold such a weight. Slim form to pack as much emotion as she did.

"Anybody ever tell you how wonderful you are, Logan?"

"I never believe them."

"I still don't care much for this waiting thing."

A young woman approached, eyes somewhat wary. Her gaze shifted nervously away from Rogue and slid onto Logan. "The elders are preparing to take feast and wish you to join them."

"It's about time." Rogue muttered under her breath. Logan cast her a warning look and rose, inclining his head to the woman. It was so infrequent that the role of mediator was thrust upon him, he found it odd being the level headed one. Twenty years ago he might not have been able to calmly sit through what seemed was going to be a ritual feast while he had comrades in danger. Age mellowed a man. Rogue had very few years under her belt. Hers was the rashness of youth, while his was generally the rashness of knowing he was the best at what he did - of figuring that his luck had held this long, it would probably see him through one more scuffle. He hadn't been fatally wrong yet. Her rashness was fueled by the fact that she was fifty times stronger than the normal man, could fly better than any bird and had the constitution of an alien super warrior. His was tempered by the patience of a predator. By the self-possession of years of studying in the orient - of living in a culture that held calmness and fortitude above all else.

He put a hand on Rogue's arm, detaining her a moment. "Be nice, darlin'. These people are our hosts an we just might need 'em more'n you think."

She hesitated, then nodded.

Together, they followed the young woman to the elder's hut. A fire burned inside and thick candles burned in niches along the walls. The low table in the room's center had been filled with all the delectable things that had been cooking all afternoon. The smell of berry wine wafted in and out of the more heady aromas of meat and vegetables. All the women Logan had met the day before were there, as well as one, stoop shouldered old man. The old man was obviously Ruman, who they had mentioned yesterday. He was mostly bald, save for a few scrapes of hair that he kept cut close to his skull. His skin was weathered and wrinkled, and one of his eyes was clouded with blindness. He was a small man, who moved about the cramped interior of the hut with exaggerated, bird-like movements.

Bren held out her hands in welcome and ushered them in, indicating they take seats on the low bench. "It is so seldom we are able to honor guests." She said, smiling.

"Male guests who aren't riddled with the plague." Old Rakeena cackled from her seat across from Logan and Rogue. She leered across the table top. She smelled like she'd already been at the wine.

"And what am I?" The old man settled onto the bench beside her. Rakeena sniffed disdainfully and waved a hand as if swatting a fly. "You're not a man, priest. You gave that up when you entered the service of Kashar."

"Rakeena." Bren smiled sternly at the older woman, before taking her own place at the head of the table. Though younger, she was obviously senior here. "We all have questions to ask of each other. Let them wait until after we have partaken of this fine meal."

Logan could appreciate that. It had been a good long while since he'd eaten and the smells were earthy and simple and utterly tantalizing. Manners were not a prerequisite here. Everybody simple reached out and grabbed what they wanted. There was more than enough for all. Rogue picked at her food, stomach still a little queasy from the poison she had fallen prey to at the river. Logan filled his plate several times, and had a good deal of the sweet wine. He was still eating happily when most of the woman had sat back to digest. He felt the center of their satisfied attention. It had probably been some time since they had had a man to feed. He pushed the plate away finally and let them fill his carved wooden goblet with more wine. Rogue sat beside him, sipping at hers daintily, waiting for his move.

With out more ado, he made it. "How long has this Wizard - - Aronthol lorded it over these lands?"

Bren exchanged looks with her fellow elders, then blew out a gust of breath as though preparing herself for a long night. "Since I was a little girl. Rakeena is the only one here who remembers a time when the land was not cursed with the Sickness, when there was no warlord. He came out of nowhere. With no warning. With him came hordes of warriors - like no warriors we had ever known. We were farmers, hunters - not soldiers and there was little our cities could do to hold his forces off. He took them, one by one until he held the centers of power in our lands. But that was not enough. He wanted to be worshipped by all. By every dirt poor farmer and every backwoods hunter. He wanted to replace Kashar as our god and like fools we refused him that most sacred place in our hearts. So he called upon his dark gods and he released the Sickness. He sent his minions out to spread word that any who did not pledge their faith and their loyalty to Aronthol would become as the basest beast. And they did. Not all at once, of course, but within a few years, every man who did not kneel before one of Aronthol's flunkies was struck down with the Sickness. My father and brothers died of it. But not before they killed my mother and along with the other men of my village who had not bowed to the wizard, they burned everything that we had ever worked for. "

"Why just the men?" Rogue asked. "Don't this Aronthol need the loyalty of women?"

The women about the table looked at Rogue oddly. Rakeena tightened her lips and spat. "To him and his brethren women are nothing more than broodmares to be used and discarded when they no longer perform."

"Charming bunch. No offense, but he's a man. Why don't he have this Sickness?"

The old man, Ruman, smiled. "Ah, but not every man is stricken. Perhaps one out of a thousand is spared. I was blessed enough to be one of those men. Perhaps it was the hand of Kashar. I was devote in my duties to Him for many years."

"You were a priest? Why'd you leave the service?" Logan asked.

"I - - had a division of faith. My brothers in the temple of Kashar are strict in their worship and their duties. They have to be, cloistered as they are in the most desolate region of the mountains, with the elements cursing them from one side and Aronthol always testing them from the other."

"They don't bow down to him?"

"They bow to no one but Kashar himself."

"Then why ain't they sick?"

"The hand of God protects them." Ruman said with complete faith.

"Which brings us back to why you left?" Rogue reminded him.

"As I said they are strict. There are those that make the hard trek to the temple for aide. Those that are willing to give up their earthly lives and devote their souls - their faith to Kashar are taken in. These initiates never see the outside world again. Those that are not willing to sacrifice all that they were - - those folks are turned away. I saw one too many child turned away - to die on the snowy paths. Never to be found because the snow never thaws. And all because they did not wish to sacrifice what I sacrificed when my father took me to the temple."

"What was that?" Rogue asked. Logan didn't want to know. He had enough of a feeling as is. Rakeena blurted it out anyway.

"His balls, girlie. There ain't been a full man in the service of Kashar since the dawn of time." She cackled as though it were hilarious to her. Ruman sipped his wine, a neutral expression on his wrinkled visage.

"Well," Rogue said, blushing. "That's - that's a real shame, but we've sorta gotten off track here. What we need to know about is this Aronthol and where's he's likely taken our friends."

"You're a hard headed girl, I told you they're likely dead." The old woman snapped.

"And you're a mean spirited old biddy. And Ah don't believe it."

So much for being nice. Logan rolled his eyes and looked to Bren for rational answers. "How far is this fortress of his?"

"When they raid us they travel the river. By land it is perhaps three days travel. But, it is insane to think you can take from him what he has taken. He is too powerful."

"We got our ways." Logan assured her. "How many men does he have there?"

"Osval is his central seat of power. At any given time, perhaps a thousand troops. As though he needs them with the Sickness he holds over our heads."

"A thousand?" Rogue looked at Logan, a tiny bit of worry entering her eyes.

"We don't necessarily have ta fight 'em. Just slip around them."

"You're better at slippin' than Ah am." She admitted.

He needed to know the layout of that fortress. Of the lands around it. He supposed someone here might be familiar enough with the lands around Osval to give it. But a little reconnaissance wouldn't hurt. Three days travel. But not as the crow flew.

"Rogue, Darlin', there is something you can do right now."

* * * *

Remy and the dogs had come to a certain understanding. They did not attack him if he didn't move from his niche in the corner and he refrained from hitting, kicking or otherwise maiming tender snouts or not so tender muscled canine bodies. Almost he managed to doze, while the pack lay in heaps about the kennel, ears twitching and tails occasionally thumping to the rhythm of dog dreams. The area about the cage door seemed their favorite. The majority of the dogs lay blocking any path to it. An irritation that rubbed almost as sorely as the runebonds about his wrists. He had already eyeballed the lock from across the kennel and ascertained that opening it would be too easy. Not with a half dozen dogs tearing at his back, however.

How many hours had drifted by since he had been imprisoned here? A dozen? More? More, he thought. It had been hard to keep track initially when his rationale had been swallowed by panic over the runebonds. He knew he was tired, knew his body wanted more relaxation than it was getting crouched in perpetual wariness at the mercy of the dogs. His head hurt. Pounded mercilessly and sharply behind his eyes. His nose was running, when it wasn't stopped up. Allergies had never plagued him before, but the dog hair, dust, mold and whatever other noxious spores were floating around the kennel were getting to him. He was cold and fleas and other nasty little parasites living in the straw were energetically plaguing him. The pure moroseness of his mood was worsening by the moment.

He hardly moved when the girl slipped into the empty throne room. She was a slip of a thing, dirty and used looking, her steps shaking and weak, as if she was half starved. She probably was, considering this place and the state of the people living outside it. He tilted his head just a little to watch her furtive movements around the wall of the room. The dogs twitched, one or two opening black eyes and growling. He thought she might be heading for the main doors, since she had entered through a narrow, plain one at the back of the room, but she passed that. Beyond those doors were only the kennels lining the south walls.

She came closer and a few dogs lifted their heads, ears flattened. Almost to the bars of the cage they let her come before a chorus of barks broke through the silence and the whole of the pack rushed the bars. Unfortunately Remy's corner was at that end of the kennel. They practically climbed over him in their efforts to get at the girl though the bars. He kicked and pummeled at them, driving them away from him. A yelp or two. A gash on the side of his palm from sharp canine teeth and they remembered his presence and warily kept their distance. The girl pressed against the wall and the bars of the kennel, her narrow shoulders touching Remy's back through the grate. One dirty hand slipped through the bars over his shoulder and dropped something into his lap. A wafer. A yellowish wafer about the size of a quarter.

"What's dis?" he hissed, suspicious.

"For you. Swallow it."

He half laughed. "You must be kiddin'?" He was almost tempted to toss it back at her, but her eyes were wide and terrified and something in them stalled him. Made him reassess his estimation that she was here on a mission for Aronthol.

"Why?"

"It's benediction." she whispered desperately.

The dogs, which had been growling and barking at her abruptly turned their attention to the wall at the back of the room, where the door behind Aronthol's throne was. The girl's eyes panned that way too.

"He sent it." she blurted out. "The furry man." Then she was scurrying for the main doors, tugging at them desperately and slipping out even as the door at the back of the room opened.

The dogs changed the tenor of their barking, yipping now in excitement, not aggression at the procession that marched from behind the throne. Guards in armor. Six of them. The imposing, elegantly cloaked figure of the Wizard behind them. Two children in the garb of servants flanking him. The children went to stand by the bone throne. The guards moved aside and let Aronthol stride before them towards the kennels.

Ah, Remy was about to have an audience. He surreptitiously popped the wafer into his mouth and relaxed back against the bars, resting his arms across his knees. He closed his eyes to mere slips and feigned a state of dozing. Between his lashes he saw the wizard come to a stop before the bars of the kennel. The dogs were pacing with a frenzy, each slavering and shoving to get closest to their master. Aronthol ignored them. His gaze rested upon his prisoner.

"Have you enjoyed your stay?" The wizard finally asked, voice low and smooth, without rancor, as if he were asking how the weather was. The calm superiority rankled. Remy opened his eyes a slit, marginally turning his head as if just noticing the man's presence.

"You say something?" The tone was just as low, but he couldn't keep the underlying snarl out of it.

Aronthol lowered his brows, tucked his chin down as if in deep thought, but the eyes stayed on Remy. Accessing him. Gauging him. Almost, Remy wanted to slam something against the bars to jar the man's intensity. It made him nervous and intimidating stares were not a thing that usually effected him.

"Your brutish companion has considerably more intelligence than you, it seems."

Remy sniffed. On most days he might not be ruffled by a comparison of his own and Beast's IQ's. McCoy's was off the scale. At the moment, he gathered that was not quite what Aronthol meant.

"Yeah, he grovels better den me. He ain't got a problem showin' respect to a poser with a god complex. I do."

"What - did - you say?" Aronthol looked truly shocked. His face colored all the way up to his thinning hairline.

"You know you heard me." It occurred to him, as the wizard looked as if he might explode from the indignity and the rage over the insult that the man was probably right about the intelligence thing. He was behaving in a particularly self-destructive manner. But, he had been through a damned irritating night and his capitulation to authority at the best of times was a grudging thing.

Aronthol whirled and slashed an arm at the guards loitering some yards away. "Take him." he snapped, voice breaking out of calmness and crossing over into icy anger.

He prepared himself for an attack, for a chance at the open kennel door. But they didn't open the gate. They thrust long spears through the bars, jabbing at him, razing the dogs that got in the way. He jumped back from his corner, trying to distance himself, but the cage was too narrow to escape the points. He grabbed the shaft of one spear, yanking it out of its wielders hands, but before he could fish it in, another jabbed him in the thigh. His leg buckled and the dogs, sensing weakness swarmed him. He lost hold of the spear in his efforts to fend off teeth and claws. Even in the midst of that madness, he heard the gate open and sensed the rush of human attackers. They thought they had him at a disadvantage (which they did) - they thought he would crumble under the two fold attack. He used it to his advantage. He let them wade in and push the dogs back in their efforts to lay hands on him. He caught the first one to reach up under the jaw with the heel of his hand and had the satisfaction of seeing a great deal of blood spurt as the surprised man bit the tip of his tongue off. The dogs loved that. They went into a frenzy as blood flew, fighting after the tiny chunk of flesh that was trampled underfoot.

Of course it was a loosing situation. Five men, as many dogs and too cramped a space to move in. Movement was his best offense. He was quicker than they were. Out in the open floor he could avoid them, dogs and all. Crammed against the back wall of the kennel it was only a matter of time.

It was a dog that got him in the end. The biggest of the brutes made a leap at him, which he fended off with one arm, but the weight of the animal slammed him backwards. One foot slipped in dogshit and in the resulting loss of balance his head cracked back against the stone wall. Sharp pain. Instant blackness tinged with dancing spots of light. He was out no more than a few moments, before he came back to himself, but by that time they had his arms twisted behind him and were dragging him out of the kennel. He didn't fight when he forced him to his knees before Aronthol. The wizard had watched the whole thing impassively. He had a slight, satisfied smirk on his face now. Remy would have loved to beat it off of him. As things were, he glared up, slightly disoriented, but very much inclined to belligerence.

"No one in this world defies me and lives." Aronthol told him. "I AM a god. The gods of this world answer to me. Countless thousands have died painful deaths when they chose not to honor me. Who do you think you are to speak so to such as I?"

"Thousands?" Remy repeated quietly. "You're a butcher, then. A murderer and you ain't deserving of nobodies respect."

Aronthol hit him. Not a particularly solid blow, more of a off handed slap, like one might give a mouthy child.

"You know, if you were one of those poor fools in the city outside, you would have been long dead with such an attitude."

"Yeah? Den why ain't I?"

"Because you are not one of them. You are something else and you interest me. You are from a place that interests me. If you had shown the compliance of your comrade, then you might enjoy the same comforts he now enjoys."

"You tell him you a murderer?"

Another slap. Remy glared from under long strands of bangs.

"What you want from us?" he hissed.

Aronthol reached out and brushed the hair back. Remy shied back into the arms of the men behind him, more spooked by that than the blows.

"Look at the men around you. Remember the faces of the folk you saw in the streets of Osval. Do you know those lovely children are two out of a thousand. Out of five thousand. Do you know how much ugliness this world holds? How much crudeness. I desire a world where beauty is the norm. Not something I have to search to the ends of the land to find. I deserve that."

Remy stared at him astonished. Not quite certain he understood what he was hearing. The man thought he was too good for the crude practicality of this world, a world whose ugliness was more than likely his making, and craved a more delicate realm? A place that interested him? Lord, he wanted to go to Remy's world. As if that world didn't already have enough megalomaniacal madmen running around.

"You are fuckin' crazy."

Aronthol caught hold of a handful of hair, jerking Remy's head back, bending down to breath into his ear. "No. Far from it. But you WILL show me reverence, or you will die. And that would be a waste - as I said, I've a taste for beautiful things."

The breath became oppressive against his ear. He jerked out of the grip, glaring warily up at Aronthol once the wizard had straightened. He was a little more wary now, a little more uncertain of the way things stood. He thought he knew why the first passage of Aronthol's eyes over him the day before had repulsed him so much. He didn't have a feel for arguing back now. He set his jaw and concentrated on testing who had the weakest hold on him.

"Here are the choices." Aronthol said. "In two days or so, you will begin to feel the first signs of the Sickness. Fever, loss of concentration, rash, uncontrollable emotional outbursts - - ah but you seem to suffer from those already - within a week, you'll forget who you are - everything you ever held dear. You'll become less focused than those dogs you spent the night with. You'll rip the flesh from your own limbs if you get hungry enough. The boils will fester and pop and your flesh will eventually be eaten away if you aren't killed by another Plaguer or a victim quick enough to get you before you get him.

Now before you even get the chance to fall prey to the Sickness you are very likely to succumb to one of the inmates of your new home - the tunnels. Some are Plaguers, most are merely mad. All are less than human and find human flesh as tasty as anything else they can tear to pieces down there."

Aronthol rapped his foot twice on the grate they all stood upon. Something below him splashed and the thin sounds of scurrying could be heard. "If you choose to forestall either end, just scream through the grills. Someone may eventually hear you and bring your petition to me. If you have gone through enough of a change of attitude, then I may let you out and allow you the blessing of my benediction."

"Benediction?" He repeated the word, having heard it so recently on the lips of the slave girl.

Aronthol smiled tightly. "Only when you pledge fealty to me."

Oh, Henri - what a very crafty beasty you are. Remy forced a smile to his lips. "I'll dance on your grave, Monsieur Massacrer, but dat be all de fealty you get from me."

Aronthol didn't slap him this time. He merely stepped back and waved a hand. One of the guards not holding Remy hurried to a wall between kennel cages and triggered a switch. With a scraping of metal one of the metal grated dropped open.

Remy didn't fight them, when they wrestled him towards it. It was a sort of prison, and an archaic one at that. He could break from any prison, if given the chance. And at the moment he preferred the threat of the 'tunnels' to Aronthol's presence. They pushed him over the edge and he plummeted. Down into darkness. Ten feet, fifteen. He twisted, trying to anticipate the impact. Hit water at twenty and rolled with it. He came up against a cold, slimy wall and pressed his back to it, listening, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. There was dim light from above filtering down through the grates, but not enough. It stunk to high heaven down here. But he was free of hands on him and there were no dogs watching his every move. It had to be better.

From his right an echo of something heavy moving through water reached him. It sounded very far away, but moving fast towards him.

"Better run." A voice wafted down from above. "They know fresh meats down there. They'll be on you in a moment."

He muttered something vile under his breath and tested the sides of the walls. Eight feet across. There was a narrow ledge on one side. He chose that over splashing through the water. He started down the left passage. It was time to find an exit to this nightmare.

* * *

Rogue took to the skies as soon as the sun topped the treetops, chasing away the utter darkness of this world's night. Sometime during the night it had rained. The ground within the stockade was muddy and the trees were frosted with mist. She had a chunk of fresh baked flatbread and a slab of cold meat from the night before's feast to break her fast and took off with the food in her hands and the bulk of the village staring up at her in awe when she defied the gravity the rest of them were subject to and soared skyward.

They had told her which way the river was, but it was hard to keep track of direction with nothing but trees, trees, trees everywhere. She knew she was off track when after half an hours flight she found not a river but a broad square of cleared land broken by neat, even rows of budding crops. A small hut with a few scattered outbuildings sat at one corner. A man and woman tended the field, but they never looked up to witness her passing. She changed direction and increased altitude. She passed another half dozen small farms before finally reaching a snaking bend of the river. Along the river the farmsteads were more frequent, but they all seemed poor, with tiny houses and dilapidated sheds. The few hamlets that perched on the shores of the river seemed little better.

The forests began to thin and the land became more rocky and elevated. The river cut through the hills like a scythe. She understood why travel overland would be so time consuming. The canyons were treacherous and a landbound body might be forced to detour for miles to find a passable route. Then she was past that and a less densely forested land presented itself on the other side. Also far, far ahead she could see the distance grayed ridges of a true mountain range. From her vantage it might have been a hundred miles away. But closer and much more interesting she saw a city sprouting out of the forest.

River vessels sat docked along a sprawling collection of piers and boathouses. A shanty town of sorts had sprung up along the river shore. Tents and canvas huts mostly. People and animals scurried along the muddy pathways like frantic, mindless ants. Up a rocky trail was a city surrounded by a wooden barricade. The houses were crammed together in no discernible order. The streets, viewed from above were a maze. Within the first barricade was a second one. Behind this was a fortress complete with towers and walkways with archers slits and great empty black iron kettles that sat at intervals waiting to be filled with hot oil to pour on invaders. It might be experiencing an invasion right now, for all she knew. Hundreds of men filled the courtyards. Hundreds of soldiers mixed with the brown clothed people in the streets of the city outside the fortress. The corrals behind the fortress were filled with horses.

If this was the regiment this Wizard Aronthol always kept on hand, then he was a pessimistic man. A nervous man. If it was not, then he was a man who was gathering forces for something.

She wanted to land, to take a closer look at this fortress, at these people, but she had promised Logan. He had made her swear, as if he didn't trust her simple assurance that she wouldn't jump the gun. She was tempted. There were so many people that she surely would go unnoticed. Just drop a question here and there. Someone was certain to have noticed a great furry blue man being brought to this place.

"Ah promise Ah won't do anything but look." Hadn't that been the wording? Well, she could look better from ground level than way up with the clouds. Logan hadn't exactly clarified when he'd made her promise. 'Sides, what Logan didn't know, wouldn't hurt him.

There was a copse of aspen trees a ways down from the docks. The path was muddy and little used, a narrow gully littered with animal feces. Maybe a pig or sheep trail leading to a pasture upriver. She walked on the grass beside the trail to preserve her loaned boots. A small flock of sheep herded by a skinny, dirty boy rounded a bend and crowded her even further off the track. He stared at her in surprise, turning to follow her with his wide eyed stare even as she passed and continued down the trail. Not many folks must come down this path, she thought, from the way that boy was gawking at her.

Closer to the barricaded city the trees thinned out. Cut down most likely to avoid giving potential attackers close hiding places. There were small docks all along the river where ragtag, dilapidated dinghies bobbed in the current. There was more traffic now. Folk carrying baskets or bales towards the city. Children herding animals, women walking to or from the river with clothes to wash. Soldiers. There were a lot of them. They lolled about, with no seeming task other than to harass or intimidate the common folk that were trying to go about their everyday business. No one flared back at the bullying. She saw an old man with a sack full of firewood tripped. A child's flock of geese scattered. A haggard woman cornered and manhandled. No one spoke up. The child tried to hold back frustrated tears, but that was the extent of the protest.

The walls of the city loomed. She had climbed a path that looked down over the river. Just below the city the docks were larger. A great many long boats like the one she had seen at the river when they had helped the two women escape from the attack. More traffic than this dock usually handled, by the way they were crammed together. There was definitely an unusual gathering of forces at Osval.

An old woman limped past her while she stared down at the river. She turned catching at the haggard woman's shoulder.

"Excuse me."

The woman flinched and turned shadowed eyes her way. They widened as she took her accoster in, then she lowered her gaze and tugged out of Rogue's grip. She wasn't as old as Rogue had first assumed from her posture and the lines about her face. She was merely used up and tired.

"Why are there so many soldiers here? What's happening?"

"There are always soldiers here." The woman muttered, shuffling away. Rogue stepped to keep up with her.

"But so many?"

"His lordship has something or other on 'is mind." the woman said with the air of someone who cared very little about the subject. "It's not for the likes of me to know. Probably has to do with the demon he brought to court."

"Demon?"

"It's the talk of the town, it is. There's a demon in his tower, working magic for his lordship. Me sister's husband's brother's nephew saw it when they brought it into Osval. Horrible teeth and claws, a great furred animal with the posture of a man."

"Oh. A blue furred animal?"

"Aye. So the rumors go."

Rogue's breath stalled in her breast. "Was - - was this demon alone? Was there anyone else with him?"

"How should I know. I wasn't there. Leave me be. I've got work to do and can't be dallying." She waved a thin hand at Rogue, trying to shoo her away.

Rogue's step faltered. She stopped and stood on the path leading to the open gates of the city. She couldn't enter those gates. She could not break her promise that badly. She wanted to go in, though. Badly. If Hank was in there, she could only hope Remy was as well. Just because the old woman's sister's husband's brother's nephew hadn't seen him, didn't mean anything. In a place like this a normal man would go unnoticed in the presence of one such as the Beast.

An arm encircled her waist, pulling her a step back and up against a thick, smelly body.

"What 'ave we 'ere?" A voice leered in her ear. Another body stepped in front of her, and a third crowded her from the side.

"By me grandmum's tits, you're a beauty." The one in front of her gaped at her in surprise. "Lookit' her, Lron. You ever seen a wench like her?"

She didn't know whether Lron was the one at her side or the one with his arm wrapped around her from behind. But the latter had moved his paw up in attempts to fondle her breast and scene or no, she was not about to allow that. She caught his wrist and squeezed. The man let out a yowl and hopped back, shaking the bruised member. She backed a step away from the other two warily.

"Y'all ain't much on manners, are ya?"

"Feisty little bitch." Lron, maybe, commented, grinning. "Did she hurt ya, Krajon?"

Krajon glared at her menacingly. "We'll see how feisty she is after we've all had a go at her."

She lifted a brow. They were garnering attention. People were staring at them as they passed. A few other soldiers were walking their way. Oh great. This was all she needed. An incident that might betray her's and Logan's presence here.

"Okay." she said quickly. "Let's see what the three of y'all are made of. Let's go over there, alright?" She pointed to a collection of sheds filled with firewood. Her three suitors looked at each other, then at her, then as a group began hustling her in the indicated direction. She let them put hands on her arms. Somebody squeeze her behind.

"After we've finished, we'll take her to 'is Lordship. He'll give a handsome reward for a piece like this." That was Krajon, over his injury and thinking of money. He was the first one she hit when they reached the relative privacy behind the shed. She just turned and slammed a fist into his jaw and he crumpled. The one behind her that had goosed her rear she kneed for good measure before back handing into unconsciousness. The third actually was thinking quickly enough to make a grab for her. He got his arms around her. She grabbed his hands, unhooked his grip with ridiculous ease and swung him into the back of the shed. The wood buckled. The shed trembled and she held her breath, preying that it wouldn't buckle. It held, after a moment of groaning in protest at the rough treatment. She stood for a moment, pursing her lips, brushing off invisible hand prints from her backside and breast.

Okay, so maybe Logan had been right. Maybe it hadn't been such a great idea snooping around here. Well, no harm done, really. She doubted if these three would spread the tale of how they had been beaten up by one women. They'd keep the incident to themselves. And besides, what Logan didn't know, wouldn't hurt him.

* * **

The tunnels seemed to stretch forever. It smelled like something, several something's, had died and were rotting down in here in the moisture and the chill. It was cold, and he was wet from floundering into a section of water that was chest high and rancid with floating debris. There were rats down here that made the biggest sewer rats ever to grace the alleys of New York look delicate. They were fearless, coming right up to a body that wasn't in motion. Remy wasn't one to startle at such a simple thing as a rodent, but these mother of all rats, had a predatory look in their gleaming, dark eyes that said, 'go ahead, take a rest. Close your eyes for a moment, homme, and we'll have you for lunch."

Even more unnerving were the sounds that might have been rats disturbing garbage, but might just as well have been something else. Something larger and more dangerous. He hadn't seen anything else, but he had come across the bones of past inmates of these tunnels. Bones picked cleaned and gnawed upon and split by something desperate enough to want even the marrow from a body's skeleton.

There were no doors. Not even sealed suggestions of ones. There were grates occasionally above, letting dim light down into the tunnels, but for the most part it was like being sealed in a meandering, watery tomb. Some parts were pitch dark, honestly most of it was, but his night vision was good and he could manage to discern a little of all but the darkest sections. Those he tried to avoid. He did not care for the scratching sounds emanating from those tunnels.

He came to an intersection that he thought he had crossed before. Turned a corner and stumbled upon the first scavenger not of rodent descent. A dark figure haunched over a pile of garbage, pawing through the refuge fervently. He stopped in that intersection, frozen, but the man -- he thought it was a man -- sensed him and the head jerked up. A cry went up, like an animal surprised over its kill. And like an animal it charged. Remy blinked and backpedaled a few steps. He let the man come at him, let him almost reach him, then slipped aside and jammed a heel into the backs of his attacker's knees. The figure went down in the ankle high water of the tunnel, but it didn't stop him. He just turned and went for Remy's legs. Remy swore and skipped out of reach, then swung a leg around and smashed his boot into the side of the man's head. Down now, but not out. The ragged, growling figure clutched his head and curled into a fetal ball.

Another echoing howl from down one arm of the intersection. Remy's head snapped up. Which direction? The echoes made it hard to discern. There, to the right. He could make out a dark, shifting pack of bodies lumbering through the tunnels towards him. He swore softly and took off down an intersecting arm. He kept out of the water to keep from splashing, and took the first turn he reached, ran a hundred yards and into a trio of what might loosely be called men running in his direction. There was a grate overhead that allowed enough light to illuminate the stark walls of the tunnel and the creatures he had collided with. If a body could fester and still function, these were it. Their features had been ravaged by scars and boils, the stench from their bodies overwhelmed even that of the tunnel system itself. No humanity remained in their eyes. These were like the things Logan had faced at the lake. Infected with the sickness Aronthol had threatened him with. God bless Beast for sending the girl with the preventative.

He didn't stop. They weren't stopping. They just howled the more, noisier than the dogs in the kennel. Perhaps they were sending up the cry that prey was loose in the tunnels, if they had that much reason left to them. He veered to the left, hit the curving slope of the wall and launched himself over their heads. He somersaulted, came down running and pelted down the tunnel while they were trying to come to a confused halt and change direction.

He passed out of the light and into darkness. Stone overhead and the sound of water running through pipes. There was some type of sewage system in parts of the fortress, maybe. He heard them faintly behind him. He was running blindly now. One hand out to the side to keep contact with the wall. His fingers ran out of stone. A side passage. He took it, slowed down to keep from making noise and hoped to hell those things couldn't track by scent.

Another twenty yards and he couldn't hear them. Maybe he had lost them. Another step and something came at him out of the darkness, arms wrapping about him and bearing him into the far wall with enough force to knock the wind from his lungs. Nails bit into his back.

Hot breath seared the side of his face. "Must be my lucky day, Lebeau."

Remy swore, when he had the breath to do so, and attempted to twist free. "Creed?"

Creed wasn't letting go. Creed was pressing him down, with all his considerable weight atop him with very serious intentions of not letting him get leverage.

"You havin' a good time down here, Remy?" Creed whispered. "Like the neighbors?"

"Get off."

"What? You don't appreciate my company over a bunch of rotting zombies? I'm hurt, boy."

"You will be." Remy said, got a knee between them and managed to throw Creed off him. He rolled to his knees in the darkness. He was totally at a loss to see. He figured Sabortooth probably had the advantage there.

"So what're you an' the furball, doin' here, Lebeau?" Casual question out of the dark.

"What're you?"

"Ain't polite to answer a question with a question. You need manners."

"Folk keep tellin' me dat." Remy muttered. "Aronthol, he knew you. So I figure, you must be at fault here somehow. None o' us asked to be here, dat's for damn sure."

"You're breakin' my heart."

"Yeah, I wish."

A cry from the darkness behind him. The sudden lumbering sound of bodies moving through the darkness. Sabortooth snarled and Remy felt, more than heard him charge towards them. Howls turned into screams. Flesh ripped and tore. Fine. Let Creed play with them. Remy pushed to his feet and moved down the hall. He couldn't deal with Creed in the absolute dark. Damnit, there had to be a grate around here somewhere.

There, up ahead, faint light. The stone of the wall turned gray with the illumination. The ceiling overhead was riddled with the black forms of thick pipes. He paused to get his bearings. There was an intersection. He didn't think he'd passed this one before.

Creed came down out of the dark webwork of pipes like a spider dropping in on its prey. Only he was faster than any spider and more ruthless by nature than even the most bloodthirsty arachnid. Remy almost took the brunt of the impact. Almost received the business end of those talons at the end of Creed's curled fingers, which would have ended with nothing less than a messy disemboweling. His own speed saved him. He was just a little superior in that respect. Faster and just a little bit nimbler than the predator that was Sabortooth.

He dove forward, catching the tip of the claws on his shoulder, hearing his shirt rip. It snagged on one claw and his forward momentum was shaken. He was going down to his knees in the ankle high water of the tunnels and he did not bother to stop the descent, just went with it and turned, putting one hand out to break the fall and jamming upwards with both feet even before he saw Sabortooth coming at him from above. He caught Creed in the gut, bent his knees and propelled the man over his head and behind him.

In a heartbeat he was up and facing into the darkness where he had thrown Creed. Nothing. Nothing, but he knew Creed was there. His fingers itched for something to charge and throw. It was a reoccurring physical blow every time he remembered he did not have that power. He spared one scathing glare at the bands circling his wrists.

"Whatsa' matter, Remy?" Creed's voice purred out from the darkness, echoing off miles of close stone walls and ceilings.

"Not so good without the edge, are ya? Scared yet?"

He did not bother to answer. He was angry and yes, just a little bit scared because he had the sick feeling that Creed was not the only one down here after him and that the others, those demented, feral creatures of Aronthol's, were watching and biding their time. Not to mention the damned wizard himself, who was probably amused as hell over this little skit. Damn, but he hated giving a show to his enemies.

He took a step backwards, scanning the tunnel for a weapon. A loose pipe, anything, because fighting Creed hand to hand was a dangerous occupation, what with those claws and those teeth.

Sabortooth charged. Remy sidestepped, blocked a blow and tried to deliver one of his own, which was in turn blocked. Sabortooth got an arm around him in the process and roared into his face. He got too close a view of sharp, animalistic teeth and horrendous bad breath. He brought a knee up that Creed could not block at this range, then slammed the top of his head into the momentarily surprised face. Creed howled and the grip loosened. Remy slipped out, and kept up the attack while his opponent was at a disadvantage. A kick to the stomach, then back off. Stay out of his reach.

Creed bent over, holding his mid-section, eyeing Remy. "There's a way outta this, you know."

"Yeah, then why're you still down here?"

Creed grinned. "Cause just gettin' outta this hell hole ain't enough, boy. It ain't gonna get me home."

Creed lowered his head, breathing hard. Remy stood there, breathing hard himself, thoughts spinning sporadically. Creed had been in cahoots with Aronthol. Creed maybe did have a clue how to get back home. God help them all, if Creed was their only hope. He took half a step forward.

"What will?"

Creed didn't even look up. He just barreled into Remy headfirst, arms spread wide to prevent escape and slammed both of them into the wall. Fool. Fool. Fool! Remy cursed himself. Creed caught his shoulders and slammed him back again into the stone. He got a knee up into Creed's crotch, but it didn't seem to phase the man. Again into the wall and this time Remy's head hit hard. Consciousness swam sickly. He lost control of his limbs. Creed growled into his face, and slapped him. A vicious backhanded blow, then paid him back for the earlier crotch shot with a knee to his groin. That sent him over the edge into blackness.

He came to on his stomach with Creed sitting on his back, in the process of strapping his wrists together behind his back. He tensed to struggle and Creed slapped a hand down on the back of his neck, claws biting into the skin of his throat.

"Don't. I ain't in the mood."

Remy took a few shuddering breaths, figured he was at a distinct disadvantage here and relaxed. Creed withdrew the hand. Gave the straps about Remy's wrists a final tug and got off. Remy rolled over and scrambled to get his back against the wall, glaring at Creed balefully. He was already starting to loose feeling in his hands. He tested the bonds and found Creed hadn't taken chances. He couldn't reach any of the straps with his fingers to loosen them.

Creed crouched there, watching him. "Who all's here with you, Lebeau, other than the furball?"

"None o' your fuckin' business."

"Don't make sense," Creed said reasonably. "To work against each other here. Far as I can see don't nobody want that fuckin' wizard gettin' through to our world. What we both want is to get back home, right?"

Remy stared at him warily. Sabortooth playing the part of reason was a new one. There had to be a trap in it.

"You wanna work together? Dis is a good way o' showin' it."

"Be honest, Lebeau. You don't trust me. I don't trust you. Both o' us got good reasons. I'm just gonna enter this partnership from a position of power. Wouldn't you, if given the chance?"

"Partnership! Ha, dat'll be the day."

Creed lunged forward, catching Remy's shirt and dragging him face to face with him. "Listen, you little puke. I don't wanna stay here. I wanna get home. I wanna see this Aronthol burn. If any of those options don't sit well with you, then maybe we don't have common ground. Maybe I should just gut you here and now and get you outta my way."

He had a point. Several of them in fact. "Okay. Okay. Maybe you ain't all wrong dere. How we gonna get outta dese tunnels, much less home?"

Creed let him go. Sat back and smiled. "All we got to do to get outta the tunnels is make nice to Aronthol."

"Right. Like he gonna just open the door and let us out when we say, 'sorry, homme.'"

"Oh, you'll be more convincing than that. Use that charm, Lebeau. He's already got a hard on for you. He'll let you out to apologize."

Remy glared at him. "You charm him."

"Oh, I got something else he wants. The key outta this world."

"What key?"

"Somethin' I got for him back on our world. An orb that he thinks will open the doorway between worlds."

"Orb? Oh, was dat what he was askin' about when you made your grand entrance?"

"Oh yeah. He wants it bad."

"So why you need me? Why should you care whether we're stuck here or not?""

Creed leaned close again, put an arm about Remy's shoulders and pulled him closer. "If I give him this orb, who's to say he won't screw me. I'd screw him. So once he's got it and he lets spill how it works, then we need to get it back. One thing you do excel at, Lebeau, is thievin'."

* * * *

Lebeau was having a change of heart. Creed could feel it in the tenseness of his arm and the break in his step. Figured the Cajun couldn't be trusted to live up to his part in a bargain, which was why Creed had him on a leash. Even then, he didn't trust him. Gambit had enough twists and turns to make an eel envious. Course, it didn't mean Creed couldn't handle him. It just meant he wasn't taking chances.

He transferred a hand to the back of Lebeau's neck, nails biting into flesh. "Don't back out on me, boy. You know I ain't got a problem with rippin' out your throat."

Gambit didn't respond. Didn't do anything but glare ahead into the checkered light coming down from the grill above. Creed shook him once for good measure, then pushed him forward into the light. They were under Aronthol's throne room. Creed had been here enough to know the smell. Lurking about, listening for some scrap of conversation that might give him the upper hand. The scent of the dogs was a vague invasion into the putrid smell of the tunnels.

He yelled the wizard's name up through the grate. It echoed wildly down the tunnels. Yelled it again and again, until the dogs in the kennels were howling in agitation.

"Sound familiar?" He prodded Gambit with an elbow and the Cajun finally turned his faintly glowing red eyes his way.

"So does dat." He indicated the tunnel from which they had come with a casual jerk of his chin. Creed whirled, cursing himself for paying more attention to what was upside, than what was down here with them. It was a set of the quiet ones, not the rotting sick creatures that a body could hear coming from a mile away. Those were little more than animals, the others had mad eyes and the cunning intelligence of psychotic killers. But they weren't as good at it as he was.

He shoved Gambit so hard he staggered back against the slimy wall and stabbed a claw tipped finger at him. "Stay!"

He met the charge. They had crude weapons. Rusty, jagged pipes that they swung with all the expertise of a five year old with a gun. They were as likely to brain each other as him. He lunged past the one in the front with nothing more serious than a rake of nails across chest, and slammed into the other one very much like his namesake might pounce on a hapless deer. The man's neck was snapped before he hit the ground with Creed's weight atop him. The other got a swipe in with the rusty end of the pipe. It bounced off the leather of Creed's stolen armor and tore into his arm. God, the pain felt good. It made his vision tunnel and his senses heighten. He turned on the madman and took another blow to the chest, which he ignored. Went straight past the man's flailing arms and ripped into his throat with his sharp teeth. Hot, pungent blood filled his mouth. Tendons and sinew caught in his teeth. No more struggles. Sensitized hearing picked up a sound.

His head snapped up, eyes as wild as those of the mad men who had tried to take him. Lebeau looked like he wanted to bolt. He took a step backwards and Creed tensed, ready to pounce. Then Lebeau stopped. Stood there half in the water of the tunnel and watched Creed watching him.

"Go ahead, make a run for it." Creed growled, his vision kept narrowing, his fingers itched to rip into more flesh.

"Get a grip, Victor." Lebeau suggested calmly. "Thought you wanted outta here - - not to join de club."

"Shut the fuck up!"

Gambit shrugged. Very casual, very composed, nothing to encourage the killing frenzy. Creed took a breath. Curled his lips and looked down at the bodies sprawled beneath him. Blood and gore spotted his nice leather armor. He sucked the blood from his fingers.

Clapping. Singular, rhythmic clapping. Creed's eyes snapped upward. His whole body tensed, searching for opposition. It came from above. A shadowed figure mostly hidden by the grate.

"Very entertaining." Aronthol's voice drifted down. "You're more of a predator then they are. How does it feel to be king of your little world down there?"

"Being king don't interest me, old man."

"Oh, I think that's an exaggeration. You're a man that likes power."

"No. I'm a man that likes the good life. I ain't gotta have the world bowin' to me."

He heard Lebeau sniff disdainfully, got up and sauntered over. "You got your point across. I'm willin' to talk. I even brought you a token of good faith." He grabbed Lebeau's arm and dragged him a step forward. "I convinced him what a mistake it is to show a man o' your importance disrespect."

Lebeau muttered something vile under his breath. It was a foul enough curse to make Creed smile in appreciation.

"Is that so?"

It was not necessarily a question meant for Creed. Gambit didn't answer, too busy grinding his teeth and glaring at the opposite wall. Creed squeezed his arm. "Answer the man, Remy."

The Cajun glared at him, took a breath and shifted his gaze upwards. "Yeah. Whole change o' heart." It was spoken barley above a whisper but Aronthol caught it. He laughed. He made a motion and somebody else triggered the grate release.

Oh yes, it was going to be a productive day after all.