(Author's Note: The following chapter deals at one point with some truly ugly facets of the human condition. Keep in mind that the perpetrator of these actions is the main villain of this story. Just thought I should warn you.
This chapter is dedicated to the memory of Joey Meyers. Fair winds and following seas, Lonewolf.)
Every Little Thing She Does is Magik
I have to tell the story
Of a thousand rainy days since we first met?
It's a big enough umbrella
But it's always me that ends up getting wet.
little thing she does is magic,
Everything she do just turns me on,
Even though my life before was tragic,
Now I know my love for her goes on—"
"Every Little Thing She Does is Magic"
Seven years ago:
She awoke in silence and stillness, not knowing where she would find herself.
Nor did she care. She was damned, she knew that much for certain. If any soul was damned, then hers surely was. After all, did she not nearly bring Hell to Earth?
Illyana Rasputin stood up hesitantly, gingerly testing her legs, relieved that they still supported her weight. When she fully opened her eyes, the glaring sunlight caused her to clamp her eyes shut. She dared to open her eyes just a crack and glimpse the landscape around her, somewhat surprised that she was no longer standing in the heart of Manhattan. Her first guess was that she had entered the same Hell where she had banished N'Astirth with the last of her arcane powers, but there was no sign of the self-proclaimed demon lord.
After a moment, she managed to open her eyes again, to allow herself to become accustomed to the bright sunlight, magnified as it reflected off the calm lake surface, off the sparkling snow-covered landscape—
For the first time she became aware of how cold she had become. Hugging herself tightly to conserve body heat, she shivered in the bright cold daylight, she stood in stunned silence as her eyes finally adjusted to the glare. It was in that single moment when she realized where she was now standing.
Lake Baikal stretched out before her, pristine blue in the winter sun. The snowy fields around her sparkled like gemstones in the sunlight. A hundred yards distant she saw what looked like the dacha where she was born, wisps of smoke drifting from the chimney.
Illyana ran to the dacha and to the promised warmth of its hearth, half-expecting to see her parents. As she neared the house the door opened slowly. She stopped suddenly, a part of her not wishing to intrude. In her mind she knew that this was not her true home, just a fantasy, a creation of her mind. But her gut knew for certain that this was home. A home she knew with a terrible clarity she no longer deserved.
"Enter child," a deep female voice beckoned, at once soothing and commanding. "I have been waiting for you."
She stepped into the hut and was immediately surrounded by the familiarity of her surroundings, so much like the farm that had been her home; the warm fire in the fireplace, the simple wooden furniture and the cooking aromas that wafted from the kitchen. "Sit, Illyana," the voice again entreated her.
As Illyana sat nervously, her host emerged from the kitchen. Imperially tall with a regal bearing that reminded Illyana of Ororo, she kept her jet-black hair tied close to her head in a single knot, but it spilled wildly from the knot over her shoulders. She regarded Illyana with a gimlet eye, but there was a softness in her gaze. Like a loving mother who had caught her child misbehaving.
"Sit, child," she entreated her again. "Be comfortable."
Illyana slowly lowered herself onto a chair, her frame tensely perched on the edge of the cushion. "Where—where am I?" she stammered.
"In a limbo," her hostess answered plainly.
Illyana's frame grew even more rigid. "Limbo?" she cried out as though pricked in the side with a hot needle. "This can't be Limbo! Where are S'ym's demons?"
"I said 'a limbo', Illyana Rasputina," the ageless woman answered. "Not the Demonic Limbo of your dark memories, but a limbo nonetheless. I call this realm 'Otherworld'."
The blond sorceress glanced furtively at her surroundings. "This place—it looks so much like home…"
"It is home," the older woman answered, "because you wish it. You see your home because it comforts you to do so. That is why we are here."
"Comfort," Illyana spat out bitterly. "What comfort do I deserve? After all that I've done—"
"After all that you have done, yes," the raven-haired woman nodded. "And before all that you could do—all that you must do. That is why I brought you here. Why this realm exists. A Benign Limbo to balance the Demonic."
She turned her face to Illyana's and for the first time, the Russian girl dared to look into those eyes. Black as obsidian, deeper than the dark between the stars, infinite wisdom shining in their vast depths. Illyana wanted to speak, to protest that she did not deserve any kindness, least of all from this goddess—for there was no doubt that the woman before her was indeed a goddess.
"I am Roma," the goddess intoned, "and I have brought you here to balance the scales—"
"Hey—hey guys!" the blonde gasped as she suddenly found herself in the center of a fierce group hug. "Great to see you guys too, but could you let me breath please?"
Piotr and Kitty slowly slackened their grip on Illyana's lithe form but maintained the embrace. "Forgive me, Snowflake," Piotr declared, his voice thick with emotion. "But I have missed you so much."
"We both did, 'Yana," Kitty added, blinking furiously in the bright Chicago sun. "It nearly killed us both when you—" The sudden lump in her throat stopped her from speaking further.
"When I died, huh?" Illyana half-smiled. Kitty nodded vigorously. "Hey, you know how it is with us X-types, right? The Grim Reaper practically has us on a catch-and-release program." Kitty just smirked at her friend's coarse joke, but the tears that threatened to overwhelm her eyes were obvious to the young Russian. "It's okay, Kitty," Illyana reluctantly broke away from Piotr's embrace and gently wrapped her arms around Kitty's slender waist. "Let it out, girlfriend. I'm here for you."
Piotr stood back in awed silence, watching as his beloved cried tears of joy over his sister's shoulder. Whatever doubts he had regarding the blond woman's identity were erased by this simple gesture. He understood fully how Kitty felt, as he himself felt the identical emotions.
Illyana's death had destroyed him; his parents had been murdered, his brother was lost to insanity, injuries sustained in a battle with the mutant-hunting X-Ecutioner left him imprisoned in his armored form—Illyana's wasting away to the Legacy virus was the straw that broke his back. He blamed his friends for Illyana's death, he blamed Professor Xavier, and he blamed himself most of all. When Magneto offered sanctuary for those mutants who swore fealty to him, the chance to turn his back on a life that had been simply grief heaped upon grief was too much for the young man to resist. Even after his moment of madness faded, he still felt lost in a world that had moved on without him. Kitty had found a new love, his friends had progressed forward with their lives, and even when he and Kitty resumed an uneasy friendship he felt isolated, almost detached from his old life.
It seemed too easy to take the Legacy cure, the formula that would destroy the virus that had killed his sister forever, freeing millions from its cruel grasp—and all it would cost was a life that he had grown tired of.
Now, years later, after withstanding the tortures of the alien conqueror Ord, his life was his own again. The darkness was at bay, and his beloved Katya was in his life again. And now, by some providence he didn't fully comprehend, his sister was returned to him.
After a minute, Kitty's sobs subsided and she was able to control her tears. "God," she whispered as she slowly disengaged the embrace. "I missed you so much, Illyana."
"I know, Kitty," Illyana smiled and rested her forehead on Kitty's for a moment. "I missed you too." Turning to her brother she added, "I missed you both. Believe me, I wish I could have told you guys sooner that I was okay."
"But why didn't you, Illyana?" Piotr asked. "How did you survive—and why are you—older?"
"Yeah," Kitty suddenly regarded Illyana with a more studious eye. "You were just seven when Legacy took you."
"I know, I know," Illyana threw her hands up in defense of the sudden verbal barrage. "You guys have like a thousand questions to ask me, right? Believe me, I intend to tell you everything…" she glanced around a the thinning crowd that filed out of Wrigley's Stadium. "But maybe we should table this discussion until we can get somewhere a little less exposed. Say, what was the name of that pizza joint you were so big on, the one over on Michigan Street?"
"Geno's," Kitty answered. "Piotr and I were on our way there before you showed up."
"Maybe we should discuss this over a veggie deep dish and a pitcher of root beer," Illyana offered. "Whaddya say, Big Guy?" she asked her brother.
Piotr smiled broadly. "Dinner with my two favorite people in the world?" he laughed. "I can't imagine anything I'd rather do." Kitty nodded in grinning agreement.
"Let's hope you two feel this way once we've started," Illyana pursed her lips. "As wonderful as it is to be with you guys again, there's a reason that I'm here in Chicago that goes beyond touching bases with my family."
"What is it, 'Yana?" Kitty asked, a slow dread creeping into her voice. "Something the matter?"
"Yep," Illyana nodded, her pale skin blanching slightly. "Hate to break it to you, Piotr, but great granddad Grigorii's not quite as dead as we would have hoped."
Candie had no idea how many days she had been locked up. But she knew with the clarity of a funeral chime that she would die in that room.
The room was lit by a single sixty-watt bulb in the ceiling, and contained nothing but a metal bed with a musty mattress. No windows, and the single metal door into the room was kept locked.
Candie had lost track of time since her abductor had taken her. And for the first time in years, she was truly scared. She'd been roughed up by johns before, but never like this. Police handcuffs secured her ankles to the bed frame. Her captor only removed the shackles when he escorted her to the toilet, and during those times he forced her to wear a black hood over her head so that she could not see her surroundings. Frequently he had drugged her (roofies, she figured, from the languid paralysis she experienced each time), before having his way with her. He almost never spoke, and seldom acknowledged her existence after each rape. Disoriented, tired and scared, all that Candie could do was wait for the end to come, and pray that it wouldn't be painful.
The slow staccato echoes of his shoes against the concrete floor outside of her prison caused her to stir in dread anticipation. The clack of a key turning in the lock and the faint screech of rusted hinges as the door slowly swung open.
"How are you feeling, Candie?" He had never called her by name before. This frightened Candie even more than she thought possible.
"L-l-look, Mister," she vainly fought her trembling as she dared to speak to her captor, her stammering voice betraying her terror. "If you're g-gonna kill me, j-just g-get it over with, huh?"
"As much pleasure as I may derive from such an act," the captor intoned dispassionately, "I do need you alive."
He was unbearably handsome, Candie was forced to admit to herself. Wavy black hair, chiseled features, deep blue eyes, the body that fell off of the cover of a romance novel. But that beauty was twisted by his darkness. His insanity—no, Candie mentally corrected herself. She'd seen crazy, and he wasn't crazy. There wasn't madness in his posture, but arrogance. Unwavering belief in his superiority over all others. A desire to force his will upon the helpless. An evil—yes, that was the word. As much as if may have comforted Candie to believe that evil didn't exist, not even within the worst dregs of humanity she was forced to associate with, her captor's cruel eyes revealed the terrible truth.
Evil did exist. He was evil. There was simply no other word for it.
The captor smiled faintly at his prize. "You should count yourself as fortunate, child," he murmured, almost affectionately. "You will become one of the mothers of the future. You will bear a child for me. A boy. A son who shall become The Chosen One, the perfect one, the future ruler of this world."
Candie paled even further at her captor's ravings and tried to crawl as far away from him as the handcuffs would allow her. "B-but I can't—" she stammered helplessly. "I can't have babies. I-I had an operation—"
Her captor blinked for a second. His gaze turned almost clinical as his eyes focused on Candie's hips. "An operation, my child?" he asked, almost sadly. "Did you have your ovaries removed?
"Y-yes," Candie nodded her head timidly.
The captor shook his head slowly. "You make me sad, Candie." For a moment he turned away, and Candie dared to hope that he might release her from captivity. It wasn't as though she had plans to report him to the police. After all, how much weight would the word of a hooker carry in court?
His body twisted back toward her with lightning speed and his hands clamped around her throat, his thumbs pressing like vises against her windpipe. Candie thrashed frantically against her murderer's grip for ten seconds to no avail. Then a sickening snap, and her struggles ceased, her body falling limp on the bed as the monster who had taken her life simply walked away.
Sitting at a wrought iron cafe table outside of Geno's Pizza, watching her lover and his sister eating pizza, Kitty couldn't help but marvel at the surreality of her life. Eating pizza should be as normal an activity as she could imagine, but the fact that her two companions were recently considered deceased was still in the back of her mind. Someday, Kitty shook her head as she slowly chewed a bite of Tuscan chicken pizza, I'm gonna get used to seeing dead friends come back into my life. Someday—
After the collision of relief, adoration and terror that marked her reunion with Piotr in the bowels of Benetech Laboratories, Kitty thought that nothing could ever shock so thoroughly as that. The sight of her one-time best friend happily devouring a slice of two-crust deep-dish Works pizza while casually describing her years spent in what she called 'Benign Limbo' proved her wrong. She found herself glancing briefly at Piotr, who sat as spellbound as she was by Illyana's tale, and fought the urge to smile. What was it you said, Big Guy, she asked mentally, observing her lover as he took a bite of sausage and mushroom pizza, his eyes riveted to his sister's face, over eight years and half a galaxy away? "The universe is full of surprises."
Somehow neither Kitty nor Piotr were surprised to hear the name Roma figure into Illyana's narrative. Roma, the daughter of Merlyn. Their former teammate Brian Braddock remembered Roma very well, as did all the founding members of Excalibur. Piotr himself recalled how she influenced his decision to rejoin the X-Men in Dallas that fateful day. Her guiding hand seemed to be everywhere during those dark days; shaping the life of Captain Britain, coercing the X-Men to sacrifice themselves against the Adversary, manipulating Excalibur into fighting the creature known as Nekron, gifting the X-Men with the Siege Perilous, the gateway that allowed them to create new lives for themselves.
Roma was known as the Lady of the Northern Skies, and the Omniversal Guardian, titles she had earned throughout the millennia of her existence. If Roma had spent the last few years in Otherworld, taking Illyana under her wing, then surely the young Russian sorceress would be needed for some great purpose, and soon.
According to her description of events, the mysterious goddess had somehow managed, at the split-second when Illyana rejected the demonic power of the Soulsword and its hold on her, to spirit Illyana away from the world and into the Otherworld, leaving behind another Illyana. One who had been yanked from the rescuing hand of Katherine Pryde years ago, but instead of falling under the thrall of the demon-lord Belasco, transplanted through time and space to that single spot, to be given a second chance. One who was still innocent, still a seven-year-old child. One who could live the life that the other Illyana would be forever denied.
One who's promise of a future was later stolen from her by the caprice of fate, in the form of the Legacy virus. Illyana knew of her counterpart's death, and her brother's abandonment of Xavier's ideals that followed that sad event. She had followed the lives of her brother, her best friend and her classmates with the New Mutants for the first year or so of her apprenticeship to Roma, through Roma's scrying pool. The deaths of her parents at the hands of the Russian government, Piotr's betrayal of the X-Men and Kitty's subsequent heartbreak ultimately proved too much for the young mutant to bear, so she chose to shut herself off from the world she had known and threw herself fully into her training at Roma's hands.
"I want you to know," she declared, sadness clouding her bright blue eyes, "that my greatest regret about all this was not being able to contact either of you. I was still possessed of Belasco's corruption—and still possessed in some ways, it's something that will never leave me. But thanks to Roma, I have managed to balance my life again. I know it's hard to explain, but what she taught me helped me keep my demonic side under control. I can still feel the darkness within me, but Roma's training somehow balanced that."
"I think I understand," Piotr nodded. "I'm just glad that you are well."
"Yeah, but why did you come back now?" Kitty asked. "Don't get me wrong, Yana, I'm turning cartwheels on the inside here. But why come back right now?"
Illyana affixed Kitty's face with a measuring stare. She weighed and measured her words before speaking. "I suppose you think that I'm still blameless for what happened that night, the night of the Inferno. But the truth is that part of me reveled in the darkness. The rush of letting go, of relinquishing my constant control to my inner demon—that darkness is something I had to live with for a long time, friend, something I will have to fight back for the rest of my life."
Piotr regarded his sister with a gentle, knowing eye. "Family curse, I'm afraid," he chuckled ruefully. "I've found that I fight my demons more effectively when I don't fight them alone." His hand strayed toward Kitty's, and she interlaced her fingers with his as he spoke.
"Those inner demons of yours are more universal than just your clan," Kitty added. "Or should I tell you guys about Ogun again? Mark Twain said it best; every man is a moon, and has his dark side."
"Thanks guys," Illyana's smile was slight, but still present on her face. "But for a long time, my darkness had overwhelmed me. I couldn't risk letting go of it, and I couldn't put anyone I loved in danger. That's when Roma came to me. She brought me to Otherworld, or Benign Limbo as I started calling it, and named me her apprentice. The magicks Belasco forced upon me, they'll always be a part of me. But Roma centered me, helped me balance between the darkness and light."
"Don't sweat it, Yana," Kitty chuckled. "Man, the rest of the gang's gonna go nuts when they see you again. Hey, Shan's still going to college here in Chicago, we should look her up—"
"No," Illyana raised her hand to silence her friend. "You can't tell them about me, not yet." Piotr and Kitty stared suddenly at the young blond, but did not reply, waiting for her to continue. "Roma didn't pull me back from the brink just for my benefit. For what I did during the demon invasion, for unleashing the hordes of Limbo, I still have a penance to pay. I won't burden my friends with the knowledge that I'm still alive, until I've cleaned the slate. Believe me, when I'm ready, I'll come home. But I'm not ready yet, I still have a long way to go. But I'm getting there."
Piotr nodded once, slowly. "I understand. But don't shut us out forever, Snowflake."
"I won't, Big Brother," Illyana promised with warm wet eyes. "But right now, we have other issues to address. Sorry to ruin your vacation, guys."
"Hey, don't worry about it," Kitty nodded. "You need help, we're her for you. You said something about Grigorii before. Is he still a threat?"
"I wish I could say otherwise, Kat," Illyana shook her head sadly. "One of the things Roma taught me during the last few years was the Rasputin lineage. Magic runs deep in our bloodlines, Piotr, due largely to ol' Grandaddy Greg's influence. That's why Belasco was so hot to turn me into his disciple. Plus, we got a few more cousins than we knew about."
"I thought I had accounted for all of the bloodlines that old lecher had sired," Piotr shook his head, "while I was in Russia recently."
"All the ones that the Mad Monk had managed to keep tabs on," Illyana replied. "There were two women who managed to escape his little eugenics program and emigrate to the States. Anya Grinkov and Katerina Wyzcenko."
As Illyana spoke the second name, Kitty nearly coughed up a bite of her pizza, and hurriedly brought her hand to her mouth to wipe her lips. "Wyzcenko? No, not him--"
"You know a Wyzcenko, Katya?" Piotr asked.
"Yeah," Kitty answered sadly. "It was while you were—gone," she fumbled slightly for an appropriately inoffensive word, and was relieved to see Piotr smile at her in understanding. "Daniel Wyzcenko's a Chicago police officer. I saw him about a year after I left the X-Men, and it kind of threw me. He looked so much like you that for awhile I thought you'd come back from the dead—" A new thought gripped her heart with a cold hand. "Illyana, is Daniel one of Rasputin's descendants?"
"And very likely great-grandad Grigorii's new host," Illyana finished. Placing a warm hand on Kitty's slowly clenching fist, she added, "I'm sorry."
"Damn him," Kitty whispered hoarsely and Piotr shuddered inwardly at the sight of his lover's inner turmoil. "He was a good man. I went out with him a couple of times. Nothing serious, I wasn't looking for anything long-term at the time, but he was sweet and kind to me. He deserves better than to become some sort of meat puppet for that bastard Grigorii!"
Piotr regarded Kitty with a profound sorrow. As deeply as he loved her, he was relieved that she made some sort of effort to live her life during his disappearance. But now the shadow of his despised ancestor has fallen again, and this time it may have cost Kitty dearly. Another friend lost to her, Piotr reflected sadly. And she had lost so many in her young life.
"I understand, Katya," Piotr consoled her as best as he could, "but remember, I still have that incantation. If we act quickly, we may still be able to save your friend."
"And if we don't," Kitty's voice was edged in righteous anger, "we take Grigoriid down hard. For good. We stop him from hurting anyone else. Promise me that." Piotr nodded once, silently renewing his pledge to avenge the deaths of his kinsmen slaughtered for the mad Grigorii's ambitions, adding Daniel Wyscenko to that list.
"As ever, Kit," a Northern London accent "A girl after my own heart." The three friends turned toward the speaker. A moderately-tall figure strolled toward their table, his hair slicked back, and a faint sheen of stubble lining his chin and cheeks. He wore black slacks and a white shirt, a hastily-tied blue tie around his unbuttoned collar. Kitty still recognized the rancid-smelling colonge he wore, the devil-may-care attitude of his attire and his posture.
"Pete Wisdom," Kitty intoned as she stood up from her chair and approached the one-time spy. "I heard you were dead, but Sam Guthrie told me you were still alive."
"Yeah," Pete smiled cockily. "I'm just the proverbial bad penny."
Kitty snarled for a second, before drawing her hand back. With blinding speed, she landed her fist hard on his chin, sending the hapless Brit sprawling on the pavement. "That was for letting me think you were dead, you jerk!" she spat at him.
Pete lifted himself to a sitting position, huffing at Kitty for a moment. "Nice to see you too, Kit. Oh, and Romany says 'hi'." Kitty simply scowled at her former love and turned back to the table. "C'mon, guys," she barked. "Let's get a to-go box for the rest of the pizza and settle up with the cashier."
As Kitty headed for the cashier, Illyana glanced at Piotr, a puzzled expression on her face. "Did I miss something?" she asked.
"They used to date," Piotr explained, a self-satisfied smirk curling his lip.