The woman sat quietly at the bar as she had all evening, head down, gloved fingers tapping lightly on the side of her glass. The regular patrons ignored her, having grown used to her presence. To them she was no longer a foreigner, despite her exotic appearance and distinctly American accent, and they treated her as one of their own.
The bartender came by and refilled her glass without a word. The woman did not look up at him, but as he moved away she downed the vodka in a single shot, sighing as the tingling warmth spread through her limbs. There was not a drop of heating oil to be found in Moscow in winter. But there was plenty of vodka.
A blast of cold accompanied the opening of the front door. Patrons grumbled and huddled into their coats, cursing the idiot who stood in the open doorway while he surveyed the room. The woman turned her head slightly to see him, and decided that this was probably who she had been waiting for. He was a tiny, shriveled old man with deeply tanned skin. He stood straight in the doorway, however, and she could see no indication that he had been slowed by advancing age. He wore odd robes, but the fabric spoke of wealth, as did his obliviousness to the fact that he was letting all of the gathered heat escape.
She turned around on her stool. "Come inside and shut the door."
The old man's gaze snapped to her, keen and curious. Out of long habit, she kept her head tilted down so that the brim of her cap hid her eyes. He stared at her for a long moment, then seemed to absorb the meaning of her words and turned to pull the door shut behind him. With the door closed once more, the patrons of the bar turned back to their own conversations, leaving the woman and the old man in a corridor of enforced privacy. This was not a place where people exercised their curiosity, and she knew that no word of her conversation with this man would ever be repeated.
The old man walked up to the bar and settled on the seat next to her. "My apologies for my lateness, Healer," he said, and she struggled to identify his accent. Middle East? That didn't seem right, but he was definitely from around the Mediterranean Sea somewhere. "I did not realize the snow here would be quite so. . . deep."
The woman kept her thoughts to herself. What did he expect of January in Moscow? She was somewhat surprised by how sheltered he seemed, and how harmless. This was not what she had been expecting, considering the sum she'd been offered.
"What's your name?" she asked.
He shook his head. "My name is unimportant. I am only a messenger."
She cocked a skeptical eyebrow at that and he shrugged, apparently unaffected by his first glimpse of her face. "I was instructed not to tell you." He reached into his robe and pulled out a thick envelope, then laid it on the bar between them.
After a moment, she picked up the envelope and rifled through the contents. The money was there, crisp and green and marked with Ben Franklin's smiling face. She had insisted on U.S. currency—five thousand in advance, another ten when the job was done. It was more than she'd ever charged before, but she had never taken this kind of client before, either. He was a complete unknown, save for the bank account numbers she'd insisted on being given in order to verify that he could meet her price. She knew she was taking a heavy risk, but this one job would give her the rest of the money she needed.
"Very well," she answered, and tucked the envelope into her coat. "When would you like to leave?"
He smiled, though the expression did not quite reach his eyes. "Now, if you prefer. There is a jet standing by, and I have no wish to remain in this frozen wasteland any longer than necessary."
The woman shrugged, hiding her smile. There was something supremely likable about the old man, despite the ancient sadness in his eyes. She didn't exactly trust him, but her internal alarms were silent. She nodded and slid off her stool. The old man copied her, and seemed terribly surprised to find her eyes at a level several inches above his own. This time, she did grin. He obviously considered himself to be a tall man, despite his rather average height.
Deliberately ignoring her smile, the old man motioned for her to precede him. "Shall we?"
The woman shook her head. "Tell me which airport and I'll meet you there in an hour." The money she carried would go to a very safe place between now and then.
He frowned, but did not seem inclined to argue. He gave her the name of the airport and the tail number of the plane.
"I'll be there."
She left him in the bar. She needed to gather a few things as well as take care of the money. And as she made her way through the heavy snow drifts gathered against the storefronts, she felt the first stirrings of excitement. For the last two years, she had slowly been clawing her way up from the bottom, finding a way to survive in this foreign place. She had started with nothing. No money—not even the ability to speak the language. Now, for the first time in a very long time, Renee LeBeau was beginning to hope that she might be able to go home.
The plane was exactly where the old man said it would be-- a sleek custom jet that reeked of secret technologies. Renee studied for several minutes before she started out across the tarmac. The closer she got, the less she liked the situation, but she had come too far to go back now. It concerned her that she couldn't identify the technology she saw. She knew a good deal about what the various governments of the world kept in their secrets files, and she had her own knowledge of what would be developed in the future. Plus, she had at least a passing familiarity with Shi'ar and other alien technologies. But none of that matched what she was seeing.
The door opened, extending the stairs, as she approached. The old man appeared at the top and beckoned to her. Renee didn't hesitate. There was little chance that what the future held was worse than the past, and she had survived that. At least, that was what she kept telling herself as she settled in her seat and watched the crew prepare for takeoff.
The old man settled in the seat across from her, but didn't seem inclined to talk. That suited Renee fine. She stared out the window as the snow-bleached streets of Moscow dwindled beneath them, lost in her thoughts. Renee lost track of the time as they flew, even dozing a little, until they touched down in pre-dawn darkness. Outside the windows, she could see the outlines of stone bluffs, blurred by the lack of light. She saw no man-made lights, no signs of an airport or civilization of any kind, and she wondered how the pilots had found the runway.
"Where are we?" she asked the old man.
He ignored her as he went forward toward the door that the copilot was opening. Renee followed him, and was struck by a blast of hot air swirling in from the outside. It smelled dry and dusty, and she instinctively shielded her eyes.
"Come, Healer. We must walk from here."
Renee climbed down the steep stairs until she was standing on the hard-packed dirt of the runway. Sand scattered across her boots, making tiny scrabbling sounds. "Where are we?" she repeated.
"The sands of Egypt," he answered without looking at her. His attention was focused on a distant point.
Renee followed his gaze, but saw nothing but more darkness. Above her, the stars were incredibly numerous, filling the sky until the inky black of space seemed almost silver from the twinkling lights. For the stars to be so clear, she guessed, they had to be hundreds of miles from the nearest city. Despite its beauty, the star-filled sky left her with a chill of fear. Moscow was a hard place. Hard to survive, harder still to leave. But she had learned the rules there and had found a place on the fringes of the underworld, where enough money would eventually buy her what she wanted. Here, she had no such assurances. She could only hope that she had chosen her client well.
Bracing herself against the unknown, Renee pulled a thick tube of metal out of her pocket. At her touch, it telescoped into a staff, more than six feet in length. It was the very last piece of home that Renee had, and even the Shadow King had not seen fit to take it away from her. She planted one end in the hard dirt and leaned on the ancient weapon.
The old man nodded and then started forward. He produced a lantern from somewhere that Renee did not see. The wick seemed to light spontaneously, but then burned with a warm and ordinary flame. Renee filed the event away in her mind for future reference, but was inclined to dismiss it as a parlor trick. Of course, there was still the question of why he was using a lantern instead of a flashlight of some kind.
They reached the bluffs, climbing steadily upward as the sky lightened. Renee was almost unsurprised when the old man led her into a narrow cave near the summit of one of the taller crags. She paused at the mouth of the cave to allow her highly sensitive eyes to adjust. She could see the old man standing before a short but ornate door, carved, apparently, out of the very stone of the cave wall. It was covered with graven images—individual pictures that reminded Renee of hieroglyphics. The door opened with a scrape and the old man beckoned to her.
More curious than wary, Renee followed him. The jet had made her think she would be arriving at a palatial estate. This rabbit warren was not what she'd envisioned at all, and she wondered just what kind of person hid himself under a mountain this way. She could think of several possibilities, both good and bad.
They wound down through a maze of tunnels hewn from solid rock, until the light of the old man's lantern was drowned in white, man-made light. The long glowing tubes that ran along the ceiling looked like fluorescents, but the quality of the light wasn't right for that. It was purer somehow, and much easier on the eyes. The old man extinguished his lantern and hung it on a hook in the wall that appeared to be there for that express purpose. A long carpet began at approximately the same place and stretched out before them. It was of an oriental cast, and Renee caught the occasional glimmer of gold thread in the design. The carpet was extremely soft beneath her booted feet, with a springy resilience that seemed to invigorate her with each step.
The walls remained stone, but were now decorated at intervals with tapestries and occasional groups of what Renee was certain were ancient hieroglyphs. The images painted on the walls were faded with time and sometimes marred with chips and cracks, but they retained their power. Renee found herself gawking as she followed the old man, awed by the museum-like majesty that surrounded her. The ceiling rose further and further above their heads as they walked, until it was nearly lost to the darkness beyond the light tubes. Carved pillars decorated the corners of many of the rooms, and Renee had the feeling that they were as much architectural as decorative. There was little furniture, little evidence that anyone actually lived there, but they passed a huge fireplace at one point which was being tended by a young woman in a white sarong. The woman looked up in surprise as they passed, and Renee could see that she was busy shoveling out the remains of a past fire. Renee found it an encouraging sign. Someone lived here. Someone who liked the warmth of a fire to ward off the underground chill.
They saw no one else until they reached a set of double doors, which were guarded by two. . . beings. Renee tried not to react to their appearances as she studied them. They appeared to be mutants of some kind, though they were identical, which left her wondering how natural the mutation might be. Each appeared to be a mixture of man and cat, with a humanoid form that was covered in extremely short, black fur. They stood a good six inches taller than Renee herself, and their faces were feline, but more stylized than truly catlike. Their eyes were blue and the irises slit like a cat's, but they watched herself and the old man approach with obvious intelligence. Tall, triangular ears topped their heads and swiveled independently as they captured the sounds around them. Earrings jangled musically with each twitch. Both mutants held very large swords in clawed hands, but their stances were relaxed. They were dressed alike, in Egyptian skirts of blue and gold. It was a style that Renee vaguely recognized from her history classes.
The two guards stepped aside as the old man reached for the door handles. He pushed the doors inward, and Renee found herself staring into a dimly lit bedchamber. A sickly sweet smell assaulted her—the smell of disease and rot. Mixed with it came the thick stench of incense, which did little to cover the smell of sickness. Tiny flames flickered at points around the room, where curls of incense-filled smoke rose toward the ceiling. A wide bed took up the center of the room, and she could just barely discern a form lying on it.
"Have you brought her?" asked a voice from the darkness. It was a surprisingly deep bass, and despite its weakness the voice rumbled with overtones of power. The form on the bed shifted slightly, as if turning to look at them.
"Yes, my lord," the old man answered, taking Renee's arm and drawing her into the room. "She is here."
Renee did not resist as he led her to the bedside. She waited quietly as the old man fumbled with the lamp that sat on a table next to the bed. In the darkness, she could hear the sick man's labored breathing.
"You do know that my powers are unpredictable when it comes to diseases?" she asked the unseen form. She was beginning to feel frightened in this strange place.
"I ask only that you use your gift, child." A hand reached toward her just as the lamp flared to life. Renee gasped at the face of the man lying before her. His skin was a grayish-blue, sagging on an emaciated skeleton. His jaw was wide and square, like a caricature, and the wide lips purple. His dark gray hair fell across the pillows in long, greasy strands. Even without the ravages of the disease he suffered, he would have been one of the ugliest men Renee had ever seen. But that wasn't the reason for her shock. The reason was that she recognized him.
"Apocalypse?" She jerked involuntarily as his large hand engulfed hers.
The dark eyes narrowed. "I have purchased your service, Healer. You will do as you agreed."
Renee sucked in her breath and tried to still the rapid pounding of her heart. She wanted to run screaming in panic, but Apocalypse's grip was like iron. Even so badly weakened, he was far stronger than she.
Go with this, she told herself sternly. He isn't asking for anything unreasonable. But in her heart she was utterly terrified that she had just become the possession of another madman.