A/N - Many thanks to everyone who reviewed last time. In accordance with FFN ruling, review replies have been moved to my Livejournal (where I'm known as Obabscribbler). I'd also like to point out that this chapter, and all preceding chapters, were written back in 2002. They take so long to come out because I'm constantly ripping them to shreds and putting them back together again, and because I'm never happy with how they end up and can't face showing them to people until I'm badgered to do so. Sharion, your reviewwent a long way to making this one happen, so this chapter is dedicated to you.
Chapter Twenty- Blood in the Night
© Scribbler, October 2005.
'Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.' – Herbert C. Hoover, 1944.
Everything hurt. His arms, his legs, his tail, even his skin seemed to smoulder with pain. The roots of his fur ached and it brought waves of agony just to open his eyes. The light was blinding, and there was a foul stench of something that really shouldn't be burning but was anyway.
Kurt could've sworn he was hallucinating. A pale face hovered around his vision, liberally covered in the odd war paint he'd learned some women thought made them look attractive. As a pained gasp escaped his lips, a pair of heavily made-up eyes looked down at him. He realised he was hooked in someone's arms.
"Hey there, Fuzzy," Tabby greeted in a manner so cheerful as to be totally inappropriate to the situation. "How's it hanging?"
"T… Tabby," he stuttered. "Wh… what… where's Sabertooth?"
"If you mean that ensorcelled housecat, then he's over there." She gestured with a nod of her head. "And this may be an understatement, but he doesn't look too pleased, either."
Kurt swivelled stiffly to look.
Rogue lay on her back next to an overturned table. Even from here it was plain to see that her chest-plate was scratched and dented and she was having trouble breathing. The unconscious form of a young assassin lay nearby, and towering over him was the formidable bulk of an enraged Sabertooth.
Slowly, things started to come back to Kurt, dripping into his mind like syrup. "Kätzchen! Jubilee!"
Tabby sighed, as if she'd somehow been expecting that. "Over there. Although I was kind of hoping for a 'thank you for saving my butt' first."
Kurt's eyes widened a little more as he espied Kitty, standing in front of Jubilee, whose robe was soaked with blood. Before them was another assassin, this time fully conscious, but so busy watching Sabertooth that he didn't seem to realise the two girls were even there.
Everything seemed so … stilted. Like a moment frozen in time for no reason other than the gods had felt like it. The air held a tinny taste of unreality, and yet when he moved the pain he felt reminded him that it was very real.
Unsolicited, an image suddenly sprang to his mind, bringing with it a surge of tears. Red hair spread like a sickening halo. Cold, lifeless eyes. Flakes of dried blood littering the floor. A drawstring pouch. The salt from his tears stung as they found their way into the multitude of cuts peppering his face and neck.
"Meine Mutti. Sie ist tot. Er tötete sie."
"Huh?" Tabby was confused, which wasn't surprising given that Common Tongue was her first and only language.
Kurt struggled to stand up.
"Whoa! Watch it there, Fuzzy," she warned, all the time keeping one eye on the curiously still Sabertooth.
"Where is it? Where is she?" Kurt gabbled. "She was here a minute ago! What's he done to her now?"
"My mother! There! There she is!"
Tabby's gaze followed where he pointed, coming to rest upon Mystique's gruesome remains. It was nestled against Salfos's leg.
"Let me go, I have to get to her!" he wailed, lunging lopsidedly. His legs couldn't hold him up and he stumbled back into Tabby's arms. For the first time since she'd met him, he didn't shy away from he touch, and she stared at the remnant of Raven the Dark in a new light. A shrivelled husk it might be, but it meant a lot to him, and that was good enough for her.
Unfortunately, she wasn't the only one to witness Kurt's outburst, nor the first to realize just how much the grisly little memento meant to him. A spiteful smile split Sabertooth's face. In a flash he'd darted for the skull, claws outstretched to destroy it. Maliciousness was a trait he was famous for, and it was well known in assassin circles that the man once known as Emilios the Savage, given the chance, liked to torture his victims before he killed them, holding personal satisfaction even above the swiftness of dispatch for which the Guild was famed. He knew that harming Raven's remains would likely drive Kurt over the edge, and revelled in the knowledge that he could have control over a person's state of mind as well as their life.
A small sphere of light arced through the air and exploded against his chest. He was blown backwards, off his feet and into the opposite wall with a sickening crunch.
Tabby dashed to the skull and picked it up. With tremendous self-control, she refrained from the perfunctory 'Eeeeeew!' or holding it at arm's length. Instead, she carried it carefully back to where Kurt was crouched and gave it to him. He cradled it lovingly, whispering to it like it was a frightened child.
"Don't worry, Mutti. I won't let him take you from me again. I'll see you safe, ich verspreche."
Had the object of his affections not been so macabre, the scene might have been touching.
Rogue, still gasping for air, heaved herself upright. It was the work of a moment for her to find her sword. "Come… on, Emilios. I know you're not … down. Let's fin… ish this…"
With a snarl, Sabertooth leapt for her throat. "I'm not Emilios! I'm SABERTOOTH!"
Rogue brought her sword up again, but improved upon the last time by dropping into a forward roll beneath him as he sailed over her. Deftly, though not deftly enough, she opened up a long gash from his chest to his groin. Sliced fur rained down on her, mixed with hot blood that splashed into her eyes. Yet it was no more than a flesh wound, his thick pelt taking most of the strike. Still, it at least answered one question: now she knew Sabertooth's increased bulk meant he didn't wear armour. Presumably because none had ever been crafted that could hold all of him in it without splitting.
Sabertooth roared as he careened over Rogue's head, extending his palms to break his fall. The new wound threw him off balance, and he skidded on his own blood, skittering to an ungainly halt. He had barely enough time to whip round before Rogue attacked again, slashing and jumping clear before he could gouge her with those deadly claws. Another cut opened up in his shoulder. He snarled in pain and fury.
Kitty looked on in amazement. Despite impossible odds, Rogue actually seemed to be gaining an upper hand in her fight. Her wonderment couldn't last long, however. At that moment, Hariq snapped from his trance and turned on her. His right hand was a mass of bloody bandages made from his cloak, and his eyes were glazed with something unnatural. He quickly bent to retrieve his fallen blade with his left hand. Seeing what he was up to, Kitty shifted the grip on her own sword to swipe at him. Her feet took her forward even as his knees bent, and she raised her arms above her head to strike him down.
Suddenly a strange thundering filled the air. The room shook. The huge doors to the ovens rattled. Kitty stumbled. Sabertooth, already in mid-leap, found himself once again aiming for nothing but empty air as the force of it knocked Rogue sideways and she was forced to grip the overturned table for support.
Tabby voiced the question on all their minds. "What the hell was that?"
As if in answer, another tremor rocked the room. The ovens trembled again, utensils, pots, pans and other paraphernalia clattering to the floor.
Rogue glanced out of the window, remembering her own pronouncement that the battle with the Silver Army had already begun. Yet another tiny, eerie change in the atmosphere told her that these tremors must originate from the same fight. They made her feel distinctly uneasy. This area wasn't famed for quakes. Only a sorcerer or Changeling could be causing the ground to move, and it was ridiculous to think one of the Temple people would destabilise the foundations of their own home. If such beings were in the Silver Sword's employ then they were going to make any chance of escape that much harder. Not only that, but it couldn't bode well for any temple members fighting with them outside. Frustration mounted within her that she couldn't help them in their fight.
A muffled snarl to her left snapped her back to reality. She barely had time to duck before a ball of sparkling light exploded beside her, and Sabertooth was sent flying again. He landed several feet away, on all fours like a cat.
"Watch it!" Tabby commanded, drawing Kurt's trembling body close. "I can't keep saving your butt all the time. I got other worries." She pressed Kurt protectively against her chest. Curiously, he made no move to disentangle himself from her.
Rogue swore again as Sabertooth returned, his claws clanging against the metal of her sword as she parried his assault. Questing fingers found their way past, but she twisted her blade around and hacked one off. It plopped unobtrusively to the ground.
"My hand!" he howled. "You'll pay for that!"
Rogue might have said, "I doubt it," but the words died in her throat, their corpses lost in the ensuing scuffle
Jean gritted her teeth, planting the suggestion in an attacking soldier's mind that he'd like to jump from his rope rather than climb it. The suggestion sent him into a tree's embrace. Then she flipped another few grappling hooks off the battlements with her telekinesis, but could do no more to them as a fresh wave abruptly claimed her attention.
No matter how many invaders she removed, there always seemed to be ten more ready to take each of their places. The fact that she couldn't bring herself to kill any of them wasn't helping, but the psychic backlash was too heavy to contemplate it. Sweat beaded her forehead. Her breathing had become laboured with the overexertion of her powers, but she couldn't stop. If she stopped they'd get in, and what she'd seen in their minds told her that only death could follow that. All she could hope was to incapacitate enough of them to drive them back.
The battle hadn't begun so long ago, but already the ground below was littered with bodies, courtesy of those with no psychic powers. Jean spent a considerable portion of her abilities keeping herself out of their dying minds. Small puffs of colour that only she could see went up from each fatality, flitting eagerly into the night sky.
Rahne had been wrong in her assumption that there were only a few scores of enemy troops. The forest was teeming with them. They crawled out as they were needed, swinging into action with strangely apathetic faces and regulated movements. Each was equipped with a grappling hook, and all were intent on scaling the temple walls, or else dying in the attempt.
Jean could hear the battle continuing all around the temple perimeter, much the same as where she was. Temple Changelings were positioned everywhere, using their powers to drive back the invaders as best they could. Yet the defenders were few and far between, if simply because of the great size of the temple and the length of the wall that stretched around it. Consequently, their forces were taxed to their limits just keeping the Silver Army at bay. In their present condition there was no way they could actually win. It was taking everything they had just to keep from being overrun.
Sometimes Silvites managed to clamber over the battlements, but Lupine-Rahne and her pack of dogs, assembled from all over the castle, were patrolling ceaselessly. Their numbers far eclipsed the offensively-powered Changelings, and anybody unlucky enough to make it in – they were always in ones or twos when successful – was immediately faced with several pairs of snapping jaws and tearing claws, which either sent them back over the stonework, or else ripped them to shreds where they stood. For protection and defending a home, you just couldn't beat a canid.
However, not even such valiant creatures could stand against cold hard steel, and a number of furry bodies were also draped pitifully about the battlements. Jean hoped fervently that Rahne wasn't amongst them.
Another tremor ran through the ground, making Jean lose her footing slightly. Damn it, where was the one doing that? She could sense that the one responsible for the small earthquakes periodically rocking the temple and disorientating the inhabitants was a Changeling, but it seemed to be one of those rare people with an inherent knack of shielding their thoughts without even trying. All she could pick up was a vague location, nothing specific. She would've been irked, had she not been so occupied.
A spear narrowly missed her head. She shrank back to avoid further projectiles. Her foot caught against something and she stumbled. Her stomach lurched; she didn't need to look down to see what she'd tripped over. Underling Ray's corpse had been the first thing she'd seen when she reached the watchtower to investigate why it wasn't manned. His throat had been torn out, his body already gone cold. The candle in the lamp had long since gone out, and Jean somehow knew that whoever had killed him was already in the temple. Then the attack began, and she'd had no time or attention to spare for to seeking the intruder out.
Waving her hands about wildly, she proceeded to disarm a soldier who'd made it over the battlements without meeting any of Rahne's crew, before tipping him backwards over the edge. Again, he met tree branches that broke his fall.
Jean had long since given up trying to reach out to convince the soldiers they wanted to turn back completely. Their minds were closed off and bound by potent magicks, keeping them loyal to their lord and master and his wishes. All she could trace was a faint longing for release that permeated even his strong sorcery, which later turned into the coloured puffs of smoke. The best she could do was plant short-term suggestions, and even those didn't always work.
A cry to her left alerted her an Underling who'd taken a hit in his side. He stumbled, dark blood trickling down his robes. Hot blasts of flame swirled from his hands, drawn from a small fire by his feet that flickered but never burned him. Each blast visibly weakened, as the bloodstain grew larger. It was spreading at a most alarming rate. Jean sensed his fear, but also the cold recognition that he was going to die soon. A sort of bleak resignation formed like a lump in her stomach, spreading queasiness throughout her system. She couldn't bear the thought of losing another temple member. In the mass of corpses she could make out flashes of robes, and each glimpse made her heart shudder.
This was not supposed to happen. The Temple of The Way was a peaceful sect. Why did they have to die simply because they housed homeless Changelings?
No, you're not!she silently called out to the stricken Underling. You're not going to die yet! Have faith!
His head jerked up, startled by her mental call. He didn't even see the javelin, much less move out of its path. It pierced his midriff, lodging midway. He grunted, turning surprised and questioning eyes on the watchtower. Jean's hands flew to her mouth, her mind still snarled up in his. Then he crumpled the same way the enemy soldier had mere moments ago, body twirling and spinning until it hit the ground far below with what could've only been a sickening crunch.
Jean was shocked. Her mouth dropped open and she stared at where he'd been. His blood was still wet on the smooth grey stones, running into the grooves and dispersing across the uneven surfaces. The suddenness of his death slammed into her consciousness like a sledgehammer, compounded by the fact that her comforting shout had been what made him lose his concentration. She actually felt his awareness sputter and go out. It left her breathless and bewildered, bogged down in escaping memories of sunny days, sand between her toes and the smell of dried out seaweed.
"Hi there, gorgeous."
Still bewildered, Jean turned. On the edge of the watchtower was a funny looking boy with shaggy hair and a greenish tinge to his skin. Yellowy eyes gleamed as they looked in, looking at her with an air she could only describe as intensely hungry. His feet were tucked under him, and one filthy hand was pressed against one of the poles that held up the roof. He wore a dreary outfit of brown and grey, the only infusion of colour a crest on his shoulder – that of a great silver sword crossed with a bolt of white lightning that crackled from dark clouds as if sent down by the gods themselves. The Silver Sword certainly had grand ideas about himself if he was arrogant enough to have such a crest.
There was something different about this boy. His mind wasn't as apathetic as the other soldiers, but Jean could still sense an ingrained darkness with the Silver Sword's fingerprints all over it. Mixed with this was the sour sensation of fear, and from past experience she knew that fear could drive people to do terrible things. Plus, there was the minor point that he was standing on the edge of the watchtower, beneath which was only sheer wall and heavy closed door. There was no grappling hook in sight.
She backed up a few steps, spine bumping against the opposite low wall of the booth. Damn it, but the watchtower was small. She'd never really noticed how small before, but now –
"You're the dame who's been causin' all the problems with the grapplers? Ain't you the pretty one?" the boy continued, not taking his eyes off her. "The name's Toad. Lieutenant Toad. What's yours?"
Jean swallowed, but said nothing. A mixture of 'won't' and 'can't' mingled in her breast, made patent only by her harsh breathing. Her brain was still too befuddled by the Underling's sudden death to think clearly, and the idea of using her telekinesis to tip this unwelcome guest from his perch went right out of her head.
Lieutenant Toad frowned and pursed his lips. "Not a big talker, eh? Neither am I, hak-chuu-lee."
And with that, an extraordinarily long and prehensile tongue shot from his mouth to wrap gooily around Jean's waist. She jerked back, an involuntary action, until she realised just what was happening and yanked back with all her might. He was a Changeling. Of course. She was so stupid!
The odd looking boy smiled around his tongue, tightening his grip and reeling her in. From his mind Jean fleetingly gleaned an image of herself hurtling off the wall top, and she half summoned her own powers before realising that to use them on him was essentially to use them upon herself too, since his grasp on her was so strong.
Grabbing the only thing she could – which just happened to be the opposite wall – Jean hung on for dear life. In return, Lieutenant Toad braced his feet on his perch and leaned back, throwing his whole body weight into getting rid of the girl who'd been causing their troops so much hassle. He'd long since realised that by attacking the temple they were attacking Changelings like themselves, but the fear instilled by the Silver Sword was so great now as to quash any reservations they may have had.
This deadly game of tug-o-war played out for several minutes, each party straining their muscles to defy the other. But Jean was already both mentally and physically weakened by the battle, and her grip began to slip. Toad felt it and pulled harder, intent on finishing her off and returning to the ground below where he wasn't such a good target.
Slowly, Jean's sweaty fingers slipped backwards, and the breathtaking pressure around her middle became excruciating. If she didn't die from being smashed into the ground by that tongue, then she would definitely be crushed by it. Her waist felt like it was about to be snapped in two, and no matter what she did she just couldn't seem to gain her breath. Her lungs constricted; strange black dots began to dance at the edges of her vision….
Abruptly, the unbearable force eased. Jean found herself dropping unexpectedly to the floor of the tower in an untidy heap. Sweet air flooded into her lungs. She drank deeply of it, vowing never to take it for granted again, before opening her eyes once more. The dots returned, but dispersed quickly, leaving her looking at a most curious sight.
Toad gurgled as the woman held him aloft by his shoulders like he were as light as one of Underling Frederick's sponge cakes. Her hands weren't clasped especially tightly, and he had the unnerving sensation that at any minute he might fall, the fear of which had forced him to retract his tongue so quickly. The woman's long white hair billowed in the night breeze, snaking across her face like a thousand tiny serpents. She looked hard at him, as if gauging whether to send him plummeting to his end or show a scrap of mercy and set him down somewhere safe.
Jean blinked. In some far corner of her mind she supposed she should've been surprised that Ororo could fly. The secret that few had known or been told was finally coming to light, and the Temple Mother was showing her true colours in an effort to protect her temple and 'children'. A small glow of hope sparked in her chest – perhaps things weren't so bleak after all.
Ororo leaned close to Toad, bringing her face to within an inch of his own. "Can you jump?" she asked.
Toad gulped. Was she crazy? How else did she think he'd gotten up here without a grappling hook? Why else was he called Toad? But instead of giving voice to them he simply nodded dumbly.
Ororo mirrored the nod, blue eyes sage yet profoundly sad. "Then jump." She tossed him into the air.
Toad screamed. As good as his agility was, without some kind of surface to push against he was as good as dead falling from such a height. His eyelids pulled back and his lips stretched into a grimace of prize-winning ugliness as he hurtled towards the ground so far below, flailing his arms in a vain effort to halt or somehow slow his descent.
Jean scrambled to her feet and leaned over the edge of the watchtower, blood pounding through her skull, not quite sure if what she'd seen was actually real or n illusion cast by some heretofore unknown Changeling enemy.
No, there was the long-tongued boy, plummeting like a stone. Ororo really had thrown him to his death. For a second the thought refused to take shape, refused to mesh with everything Jean had ever known and believed about the Temple Mother, but the sound of his scream cemented its existence.
She looked up at where Ororo she floated casually, for all the world a spirit or errant wil-o'-the-wisp. Her face was impassive, not even watching the youth she'd so casually cast aside. Instead, she was staring into the trees, gaze flipping to and fro – searching for something. Jean goggled at the ruthlessness she'd never seen before.
"Mother!" she cried.
She needn't have worried. Ororo was intent on protecting the temple, but she was far above punishing when there was a way around it. Fear was an excellent deterrent for attackers, and Toad certainly experienced a healthy dose as his face sped toward the muddy ground, churned by the feet of his own battalion. At that moment he didn't care about the Silver Sword any more. He didn't care about winning, or the fight at hand. All that concerned him was saving his own skin and keeping it safe – something that was rapidly slipping through his fingers like. He muttered a prayer to any god who cared to listen and he hadn't pissed off, then waited for the inevitable splatter.
Then an unnaturally strong gust of wind hit him. Toad found himself abruptly plucked from his freefall, to float harmlessly until the drop was small enough for him to complete without splurging himself. The odd wind evaporated as quickly as it had come, and Toad glanced up to see the Temple Mother with one hand outstretched. She retracted the hand and spared him a precursory nod before levitating over to the watchtower, neatly avoiding any and all weapons thrown her way with the greatest of ease. The nod's meaning wasn't lost on Toad – Go now, and you'll remain unharmed. Stay and risk the consequences.
He was in no hurry to discover exactly what those 'consequences' were. Hurriedly, he scuttled up and away through the trees to the relative safety of their overhanging branches. He didn't stop until the sounds of battle could be mistaken for a memory, and not a reality.
Ororo flew gracefully to alight upon the roof of the watchtower. Jean leaned out, craning her neck to see what she was up to, but was forced to duck back as a javelin sheared past. It cropped a few red hairs with its nearness. Her attention returned to the fight, and with a burst of energy built on rage and frustration, she savagely threw off all the grappling hooks and enemy soldiers within telekinetic distance. The explosion of angry power reduced her to gasping for breath and clutching her chest. Her knuckles blanched as they curled around the edge of the wall, but she risked another look upwards.
Ororo stood silently upon the slates, eyes closed and head bowed as if in prayer. Her fists were bunched at her sides, and despite being such an obvious and prominent target, no enemy weapons were even getting close to her. An increasing wind buffeted her body, whipping her hair into a mad frenzy of white strands that danced like wayward sprites on the night air. She tilted her face, throwing out her arms and allowing her hair to become a funnel of white, streaming heavenwards in the updraft.
Ororo's actions may have been very public, but her thoughts were her own, kept even from Jean. They were thoughts that fuelled her deistic powers and channelled them through her mortal form.
It wasn't right. So much pain and suffering. So many young ones forced to see what none should ever have to witness, and do what nobody should ever be forced to do. So much death. So much loss – of life and freedom of will to the Silver Sword's hateful sorcery. Ororo balked against what she'd seen in the few minutes since coming outside and looking upon the battle between his 'side' and theirs. Set next to each other the Silvites and temple-folk were so alike that a stranger wouldn't have been able to tell them apart. And yet they were being forced into a battle of impossible odds, to fight until their last breath and, provided they survived, carry the emotional scars of what they'd seen until the end of their days. Their innocence was being stripped away, and it made her seethe inside that one man, no matter how powerful, was so arrogant and paranoid as to do such a thing to his own subjects as well as his 'enemies'! Her blood boiled with a rage she hadn't felt in many centuries, and her hands stretched out to catch and cup the flickering energy she was calling.
It had been a long time since she'd invoked her powers. The stipulations of her exile were that she could only use them with specific permission of Ajudan. Well, now she had that permission, and his blessing to go with it. All was in place, but having spent so much time with the mortal-born Ororo had learned self-doubt, and now it plagued her. Would this be enough? Could she do it? Was she still capable enough?
She cupped the mass of glowing white raw power, shot through with lattices of white, silver and deep purple. It crackled in her palm, throwing out heat that would have evaporated raindrops before they hit the ground, hovering scant inches above her skin yet doing her no harm. Slowly, she drew strands of it from the air around her. The atmosphere was alive with it, for those who knew how to recognise it. It had many names, but remained the same physical thing no matter the language – Xing Xing Jing, Gaia's Blood, Ki, elemental energy, planetary life-force, chi. It was the magical fabric of the very universe, the essence of life. Every living thing in the world gave it out, and those that died gave theirs back to be recycled into the central core from which all existence once sprang. Ororo snared it as it drifted toward her, drawn by her vehemence and silent appeal. She didn't order or control it, but worked in partnership with it, as had been the way since the dawn of time. She asked, and it complied. She requested, and it considered her request before submitting to her will. Slowly her unease began to melt away, replaced instead by a confidence that could never, and would never be experienced by a mere mortal. It was meant for a true deity. A god…. or a goddess.
Ororo's eyes slid open.
At that moment another tremor wracked the ancient stones of the temple, throwing Jean – already off-balance as she teetered on tiptoe trying to see – from her feet. The redhead landed heavily, and fell against Ray's corpse. His dead flesh was dank through his robes and smelled of death. She squeaked and shuffled away on her behind in the manner of a startled squirrel, drawing her knees up to her chest and biting her lip to keep from crying out like a pitiful child instead of an acolyte.
Ororo didn't look down, but her eyes became hard. A whitish film crept across them. Soon there was no distinguishing the iris from the rest of the eye, and her pupils vanished completely beneath the milky layer. Her brow knitted, as she concentrated on the mass of sparkling energy building in her hand. It grew and grew, until the palm beneath vanished from sight, and most of her arm crackled with untapped, raw power.
Only then did she break from her reverie. With a startling shriek, she pointed her hand into the sky and the gathered energy shot forth as a huge bolt of white, streaking through the clouds and into the night sky beyond. For several long seconds it emptied from her body, flowing from her fingertips and flying aloft like some potent bird of prey with its hood removed.
When the supply appeared to be dwindling she clenched her fist and cut off its escape route. Rising into the air, the Temple Mother shouted, her words flying on the wind and reaching the ears of anyone and everyone in the vicinity, and inspiring a mixture of terror and hope amongst them.
"Hear me, invaders, for I stand before you now not only as Mother of this temple, but as a much higher authority. You will listen to me, or you will perish. Leave this place. Turn around and go back to where you came from. Your lord is not worth death." She held out her arms, flexing her fingers experimentally. Something like blue electricity glimmered between each of them. "Let this be a warning to all. Choose to fight the Silver Sword's control. Escape this temple. Or face me."
She held out one hand, and a bolt of energy flew from the centre of her palm to hit a single tree in the forest below, cleaving it in two and leaving it smoking. A figure tumbled from the branches. Jean sensed incredible potential power linked intrinsically to the scorched earth he landed upon, and caught the fleeting mental broadcast: What the f -
The youth struck the floor in a flurry of decaying leaves, twigs, insects and soil. He thrashed about for a few seconds before realising that he was safe – relatively – on the ground and unharmed. A quick glance into the sky, however, informed him that if he didn't play his cards right then this state of affairs was only a temporary one.
Ororo glared down at him, and he shrank back from her expression even at this distance.
"You have free will. Will you abandon this course of action and leave here peacefully?"
He cast about for some kind of ally, but all he saw were the expressionless faces of his own troops, awaiting the next orders he didn't have. Damn it, where was that idiot Toad when you needed him?
"Your companion is gone," Ororo told him, as if reading his thoughts. "He fled not long ago. There was no shame to his decision, and I strongly suggest you make the same, unless you wish to face me. But be warned that if you do, you will lose and forfeit more than just your pride."
Lance blinked and frowned foolhardily. "Why? You're just a Changeling like me, and I'm pretty powerful. I'll bet I could take you, lady."
Somehow, notwithstanding the distance between them the wind carried his words to Ororo, and she laughed bitterly. "You mistake me, young sir. I am not a Changeling. I am something far different, and far more fearsome. I…" she paused uncertainly, but took a deep, strengthening breath and continued, "…. am a goddess."
Lance snorted. "Pish posh. So you're a go - " His eyes widened as what she'd said sank in. A goddess? But how… where did she… why was she…? Aw crap.
"But if you truly desire to face me..." Ororo gave a minimal shrug of her shoulders, opened her clenched fist and allowed another bolt of raw energy to streak through the air and incinerate a hole in the ground near his boots. Flakes of ash settled on Lance's face. He scrambled hastily to his feet.
However, instead of instantly running away like Toad, Lance showed a modicum more loyalty – albeit slightly warped by the person it was owed to – and stood firm, glaring hotly at the floating woman who claimed to be a goddess.
He didn't truly believe it, since he'd already borne witness to several Changelings with similar abilities on the temple walls. A few tremors in quick succession had taken care of them, and he was sure something of a similar nature would deal with the Temple Mother just as easily.
Problem is, he thought, if she's in the air like that, any ground attacks I try will have no effect. Can't shake up what I can't touch. His eyes flitted from Ororo to the watchtower she hovered by, and the length of wall stretching away on either side of it. Several Changelings were still furiously defending from there, sending various attacks over the battlements. Their feet were all firmly planted on the floor.
For an instant neither Jean nor Ororo understood what was going on. The youth's eyes suddenly rolled back into his head, leaving only the whites on show. Unlike the milky film covering Ororo's eyes, this was a gruesome spectacle, made worse by the trembling that suddenly wracked his body. He seemed to be having some kind of fit, and Ororo wondered whether she'd overdone it a bit and driven him over the edge with fear.
That is, until the temple began to shake.
A deep rumbling echoed up from the ground, lower and more menacing than any tremor previously sent their way. This was a concentrated attack of the boy's powers, and it shot through the foundations of the magnificent buildings, sending them juddering and shaking like nothing ever before. It was swift and brutal and nobody was ready for it. Those on the battlements clung on desperately, but a few were so absorbed in their activities as to be caught unawares. They stumbled and toppled over the edge of, plummeting and leaving their posts unmanned. Screams rent the air, as dozens of people, some Changelings and some not, fell.
Jean reached out with her telekinesis, grabbing a few of them and either steadying their fall or levitating them back up. But she was only one person and she'd been exhausted by the fight already – there was no possible way she could catch them all. There were simply too many. Her eyebrows shot up in despair, and she gripped the side of the watchtower with the effort of saving those she could.
Ororo's body dipped. She sped downwards with incredible speed, becoming little more than a pinkish blur as she darted to and fro, catching the falling bodies and replacing them on the battlements. The walls were so tall that the descent took several seconds – more than enough time for her to make it to them and use her deistic powers to rescue them.
Lance's eyes returned to normal, and though breathless he looked up at what she was doing. A smirk appeared on his face. She was taking the bait like he'd hoped, and he pointed for the benefit of his troops.
"Fire! Now! Shoot her now!"
A volley of missiles sliced through the air towards the preoccupied Temple Mother.
Jean saw him point, saw the volley that followed, and she froze, some inexorable force disallowing her body the right to move as these projectiles flew towards her mentor – the woman who'd taken her in when she had nowhere else to go. The person who'd placed such trust in her. The one individual who'd always believed in her.
"Ororo, look out!" The scream ripped itself from her lungs of its own accord.
Too late. Grabbing the last fallers close to the ground, Ororo and her precious cargo were suddenly lost amongst a flurry of spears, javelins and other assorted weaponry.
Jean's body broke from its trance, and she flew to the side of the watchtower in dismay. "Ororo…" she whispered.
The rescued temple folk also peered over. Murmurs sped through them, as they wondered whether they'd just seen what they thought they'd seen. Some started to wail. Others contemplated what was to become of them if the Silver Sword's forces could kill someone so powerful as Ororo the White. One or two just stood there dumbly, as though in shock from terrible wounds nobody could see.
Jean was one of these. She stared, eyes fixed on the point where she'd seen Ororo last. It had been quite near to the ground, since the person she'd been rescuing had had more time to fall than the others. Low mist hung about the area, obscuring all from view and creating a miasma of half-seen images and forestry. When nothing emerged from it, hot tears began to prick the backs of Jean's eyes.
She… she couldn't. Not Ororo. She's too powerful, too … too … She's got to be all right!
Jean couldn't put it into words. She never would. She would try sometimes, but they would dry up in her throat, so full of meaning they lost out on actual sound. Ororo was like a mother to her – like everybody's mother, but Jean's most of all. Ororo was the beacon she'd adopted when her family was so suddenly and so brutally taken out of her life – something to fill that particular void. She wasn't just important to Jean, she was needed, the same way a field of crops needs rain, or a fishing boat needs blue skies.
She can't be dead, she just can't. Too many people need her. I… I need her. "Ororo!"
Suddenly the mists parted, and a familiar figure floated effortlessly upward. She alighted on the wall top and deposited a young human girl there – not a Changeling, but someone who had been more than willing to offer her services with a bow and arrow to defend her home. They were both miraculously unharmed.
Ororo looked down on the Silver Army. Jean had never seen her angry before, but now her face was positively thunderous. It was a fearsome, but somehow bewitching sight.
"So," she boomed in like the sonorous rumble of a storm, "little Changeling. You choose the path of malice and hatred. I gave you the chance to leave in peace and you threw it back in my face, endangering the lives of innocents for your own gain. Now, you shall reap the consequences of your actions. Flee while you can, mortal, for if my wrath finds you it shall not be lenient." With that, she rose high into the air, palms splayed and arms raised to the heavens.
The wind became a howling gale in the space of a few seconds, and everyone on the battlements was forced to crouch in order not to be blown off. Raw power flickered around Ororo's hands, snaking down to encapsulate her body with faint blue tendrils of light.
Lance gulped. He took a step backwards. It wouldn't be accurate to say that doubt began to surface in his mind. It had already floated to the surface like a dead body in a pond, and was now decomposing pungently in the sun. There was no way that woman could've survived having so many missiles aimed at her. Under The Silver Sword's mind control, each of his troops were excellent shots. It was impossible for her to have dodged and avoided each and every one of them simultaneously.
Lance took one look at the natural energy flowing around her, and suddenly believed what she'd said. The realisation looked up at him with a tired sigh, as if to say So you've finally decided to notice me? Well, you're about thirty seconds and one earthquake too late, buddy.
She was a goddess – though how, and why she was here was still a mystery. Gods were supposed to stay in the Pantheon, swirling about somewhere with sprits and doing godly things. They weren't supposed to slum it here on the ground. But the realisation kicked him squarely in the nuts and told him to bloody well stop thinking and start running. The only thing that mattered right now was the power Ororo wielded, and the fact that he'd driven her to use it through his own stupidity and unwillingness to believe.
He bolted for the safety of the trees. The rest of the battalion would keep going, he knew. They had no choice in the matter, and would fight to the end without a word of complaint. It was how the spell worked – but he was free enough of it to escape this place whilst he still could. He hoped.
Some part of his brain, the compassionate part he'd tried to bury long ago, popped up next to the realisation and reminded him that what he was doing was cowardly and wrong. It sounded irritatingly like his mother, but the other figment overruled it, telling him that even if he stayed and attempted to rescue his company, they'd most likely turn on him and dash him to dust for being a traitor to their cause. Another unsavoury part of The Silver Sword's spell.
So he ran on, alternatively shrieking and rationalizing his fleeing to himself, until he was no more than a blip speeding through the trees and leaving a path of broken undergrowth in his wake.
The dark clouds above Ororo began to swirl, as the abandoned troops set themselves to their default mode and once more attacked the temple wall and gates, throwing grappling hook upwards and battering on the doors with their fists and weapons. Several of them began hacking at a tree to use as a makeshift battering ram. A full frontal assault had already proved useless, but the mind control spell wasn't known for engendering good imaginations in its victims.
The beam of light struck Ororo squarely on her face, illuminating her features and making her appear even more otherworldly. She gave a small, fierce smile.
The temple folk had returned to the task of protecting their home against the invaders, and so could only spare her fleeting glances. They were as much in the dark about what she was doing as anyone else.
In a sparkling display of deistic might, Ororo threw her head back and screamed louder than an Arctic wind. "Power of Nature, come to my aid! Winds, rain, lightning, help me drive back these invaders who threaten my children! Use me as your vessel; channel your strength into our battle through my hands. I beg of you, come to my aid!"
Her own power, that which some people call 'soul' or 'spirit', which she'd released into the sky earlier, came racing back to her with astronomical speed. It acted as a guide for the power of Nature itself. Nature had once been Ororo's closest companion, nuzzling against her and watching the world through her eyes. They weren't as intimate as they had once been, but there was still a connection between this frail mortal form and that raw force.
It consumed her body utterly, drawing its strength inward and plunging through her, excess tingling around her fingertips. Ororo gasped at the sudden influx, feeling it course along and through her veins, infusing her with the same kind of great power she'd relinquished so long ago in the name of love. Now it returned, if only for a short time, and filled her completely with its immutable potency, long bound since the beginning of all and everything.
For the first time in a millennia, Ororo felt whole again.
Jean sensed the link between Ororo and the powers of Nature once more, and sent an impulsive mental message out, not knowing whether she'd hear it or not.
She did, of course.
Ororo, they're trapped within their own minds. I've sensed it coming off them in waves. They don't want to live like this any more, but the spell is too powerful for them to break out. They want death. It's their freedom won back again.
Bolts of lightning fizzled from palm to palm as Ororo gazed down at her charges, fighting so valiantly against enemies that desperately wanted to stop their own fighting. This was a battle that never should have happened – something that neither side wanted, but had been compelled into against their will.
And now it was time to end it.
The goddess-come-Temple Mother flew lower, cupping her hands together before her breast. A pool of liquid energy filled them, oozing up the rim of her fingers and dripping down the sides. It represented all the powers flowing through her, and brimmed with their intensity. The strength of the storm was her will, and blazing sunlight her might; ice was her white-eyed stare, and driving rains her hair. She was one with them, merged with them, bending them to her needs and musts.
"Be still, my children. You've fought well, but now it's my turn. Now it's time to finish this once and for all."
And with a yell, she freed all the power inside her, letting it burst from her skin in a breathtaking display of iridescence and tortured sweetness. Her body contorted, throwing out beams of pure energy in the form of lightning ripping from her fingers. A strong gale whipped up the air, and buffeted the oncoming attackers back from the walls in all directions. Rain lashed their faces, snow and ice numbed their hands until they couldn't grip the ropes attached to their grappling hooks any longer and plunged to their combined doom and liberation in death below.
In a few seconds Ororo had cut a swathe through the approaching hordes, and the striving Changelings and other folk gave a cheer at this small victory.
But the battle wasn't won yet, and was not over by a long shot. With their Temple Mother blazing goddess glory overhead, and a new sense of hope in their hearts, the inhabitants of The Temple of The Way renewed their efforts with added vigour.
The battle began afresh.
Sabertooth bellowed as Rogue delivered him another crushing blow to the ribs. He'd taken advantage of her being off-balance after one of the tremors, and now held her by her throat, ready to bite and tear out her life-vein.
A tactical error from him left her legs free. She kicked with all her might, grim satisfaction registering on her face at the sound of cracking ribs. If she was lucky, they would rive up into his lungs, or some other vital organ. If she was unlucky, his physiology had changed enough that a few bits of broken bone wouldn't prove a problem for him.
Sabertooth doubled over in reactive pain. Success! Rogue twisted one arm free. Her sword had been knocked across the room, but a small dagger was clutched in her fist, and she raised it to plunge into him in that brief vulnerable second.
However, not for nothing had Sabertooth become famed as one of the most deadly assassins ever known. With a grace incongruous to his wide bulk, he snapped a hand up and twisted the dagger from her fingers, squeezing the other practically into a fist. It landed with an ineffective clatter at his feet. Deprived of air, and with the vertebrae in her neck crunching, Rogue clawed desperately at her throat, but to no avail. It was a coin toss whether she died from a snapped neck or strangulation.
With a weak cry, Kurt suddenly appeared atop Sabertooth's back in a puff of sulphurous smoke. He leaned forward and somehow got a hold of the man-creature's snout from behind, inserting his fingers and yanking back with his feet braced just below Sabertooth's shoulders. Sabertooth's head was jerked upwards, though not enough to separate the base of his skull from his spine. His thick neck muscles bunched as he growled and twisted, trying to bite Kurt's fingers. Kurt kept them out of reach, hooked in his nostrils, and kept pulling, hoping to distract the behemoth enough that his grasp on Rogue would falter.
Rogue opened one eye and whispered feebly, "Elf… no…"
Tabby looked on in horror, Raven's decapitated head still in her hands where Kurt had hastily pushed it before going to his friend's aid. She couldn't throw an attack, since that risked hurting Kurt – and Rogue, but it was Kurt she was worried about – but she knew that she wanted – needed – to help them somehow. But how? She felt powerless, and desperately glanced about the room for inspiration.
Kitty was still battling against Hariq; Jubilee slumped in a semi-conscious heap behind her. The oriental girl looked in a bad way, and despite all their previous differences, Tabby found herself also wishing to help her too. She was torn between the two fights, and looked back and forth with her mouth open, wondering what to do.
Tabby was not the bravest person. She wasn't the fastest, or the strongest, or even the wiliest – though she'd happily lie to you to make you thin otherwise. Outside her Changeling abilities, her only talent seemed to be finding trouble, with a minor in getting herself into it. Getting out usually required outside help, often of the Initiate variety.
But here, now, there were no Initiates. There was no Temple Mother, no Acolyte, nobody higher up the pecking order to tell her what to do. The overconfidence that had allowed her to make her melodramatic entrance had evaporated, leaving her bewildered, as helpless to make her own choices as she'd been when she first arrived at the Temple years before.
With a burst of strength, Sabertooth shoved his head forward, ripping his nostrils open. Kurt yelped and toppled over his head, swinging round to dangle loosely from his mammoth neck. He brought one foot up and kicked Sabertooth in the face in a show of acrobatics only he could've mastered. Sabertooth's nose finished its journey into the Land of Pulp, sending his head jerking sideways. Kurt then teleported away as fast as he could, re-emerging on the ceiling above.
"Tabby, now!" he shouted.
Tabby looked questioningly at him, and then at Sabertooth. He was doubled over, snorting and spitting blood. He also had his back to her – his exposed back.
Wordlessly, Tabby transferred her macabre package to the crook of one arm and cupped the other hand to form a small glowing ball of energy. It exploded against Saberooth's back. He was catapulted quite spectacularly forward, Rogue flying from his hands to twirl and land in a clumsy crouch some distance away. She dropped to one knee, gasping.
With a terse nod to Kurt, Rogue backed up, scanning the debris-littered floor for either of her discarded weapons. Sabertooth was half-covered by wreckage, but she knew from past experience that this meant nothing. Hand to hand hadn't worked, but he was still flesh and blood. He could still be cut. She needed her blades if she was to stand any chance against him again.
In a burst of imploding light, Kurt appeared beside her. Her sword was in his hands, and his injured tail was wrapped around the handle of her dagger. He'd obviously scooped it up off the floor when dangling round Sabertooth's neck, and spotted the sword from his vantage point on the ceiling. He handed them to her without a word, and Rogue noted how taunt his face was; drawn tight with barely repressed pain.
She frowned. "Get back to where it's safe, Elf. You're in no condition to fight."
"Neither are you."
It was true; Rogue was a mess. Her fight with Sabertooth had reduced her to a sorry mess of tattered clothing, blood and dirt smattered skin. Her eyes still blazed, however, and she glared hotly at the impudent halfling.
Kurt glared right back at her. "And I want a piece of him too. He has to pay for what he's done." With that, he launched himself forth to renew his earlier assault.
But where he was swift, Rogue was swifter. Her training under Logan made itself known as she caught him deftly by one ankle. Kurt stumbled and almost crashed into the floor. He probably would've done, had it not been for his amazingly agility. Instead, he rounded angrily on Rogue, mouth open in readiness of an angry shout.
Rogue hit him on the temple with the butt of her sword. He slumped into her waiting arms. "Sorry, Elf, but it's for your own good."
An agonised howl caught her attention, and she whirled round just in time to see Kitty stumble backwards clutching her shoulder. Blood oozed from between her fingers, and her face was taut as she tried to fend off another attack from Hariq. She was clearly coming off the worse in their fight. She couldn't hold out much longer, and if she fell then Jubilee would soon follow.
Rogue made a snap decision. She shovelled Kurt onto her shoulder, bounded across to Tabby, and dumped him unceremoniously at her feet.
"Watch him. See that he don't get hurt, else there'll be trouble, y'hear?"
Tabby indignantly watched her go. Like she'd let Kurt get hurt any more? Despite what he and others thought about her, Tabby had grown rather fond of him. His warmth and friendliness was endearing, more than any boy she'd ever met before. Her life before The Temple of The Way had been a harsh one, filled with pain and resentment, so she valued companionship more than most people, more often than not mistaking it for romantic affection. But with Kurt ... she genuinely liked him, and had the situation been different he may have returned her attempts at affection.
Sighing, she looked down at him. It was common knowledge about the feelings he nursed for that wench, Kitty – common to everyone but her, that was. Tabby had never even stood a chance with him. She knew that. Nevertheless, she felt more strongly about this strange, friendly little Germanic halfling than she'd ever felt about any of her other crushes. He was different. Perhaps this strange feeling in her heart was some kind of love. Maybe. Unrequited love, of course. If not, then it was the closest she'd ever come to it in her ultimately short life.
Kitty was failing fast. Hurt in a dozen different places, the odd force that had guided her movements before was fading, and without it she was no match for the adept and expertly trained Hariq. He cut and slashed with practised ease, forcing her backwards until she was almost standing on top of Jubilee. Victory shone brightly in his eyes, and he barrelled forward for the final blow.
There, her throat was exposed! He raised his blade to cut it open.
Kitty's head jerked up, and she saw shock ricochet across Hariq's face. His sword jangled noisily to the floor, and his head tilted to look at the sword point jutting from his chest. Twisted metal serrated around it where the blade had punched through his armour like butter, and by twisting his torso a little he could look into the eyes of his killer.
A faint smile – more of a smirk, really – graced the corners of his mouth where blood was already beginning to dribble.
"You ..." He coughed, and turned his face heavenwards. "Alkeith," he called in a last prayer to the God of Assassins, "accept me into your embrace …" His eyes dimmed and he slumped forward to slide off the sword, crumpling to the floor in a heap.
Rogue stepped over him like he wasn't even there. "Y'aright, Shrimp?"
Kitty simply stared. Then she swallowed. "Yeah, I'm fine. But Jubilee's in a pretty bad way."
Rogue nodded grimly. "We gotta finish up here quick, otherwise she won't make it."
As if to emphasise this, Jubilee chose that moment to emit a low groan, and rubbed her head with one hand. She was still conscious, but barely, and needed help just to stand. The bottom of her robe was soaked dark red, and she swayed on her feet. Kitty gripped her elbow to steady her.
A muffled roar sounded from across the room, and all three of them looked round to see an enraged Sabertooth, fur still smoking, bearing down on Tabby. The blonde girl was knelt on the floor, hugging Kurt protectively to her chest and brandishing a ball of her power in one hand. Raven's head was in Kurt's lap, and somehow his hands were now curled possessively around it.
"Yept!" Rogue swore.
Tabby threw her energy ball, but Sabertooth avoided it and smacked the side of her face. Tabby flew backwards, dragging Kurt with her. When she looked up she spat out a bloody tooth, and her lip was split.
The energy ball exploded upon hitting the wooden door to one of the numerous pantries lining the opposite wall. Several bags of stored foodstuffs tumbled out amongst the wreckage.
Hurriedly, Tabby created another, but Sabertooth was too close. He grabbed her wrist and snapped the bone neatly in two, leaving blood from his own missing finger. Her energy dissipated harmlessly.
Rogue dashed across. Sabertooth rounded on her, but she thundered straight into his chest with her shoulder, knocking him back a pace. He swiped at her, claws slick with different bloods, but already she was gone and attacking from another side. Her blade slashed, but he dodged and grasped her arm, trying to break the bone like he had Tabby's – or else just rip her arm right off. With a grunt she transferred her sword to her left hand and jabbed it into the only place she could – his side. Sabertooth roared, hoisting her aloft and throwing her. She hit the wall with a dull thud and slithered down it in a daze.
Tabby looked on helplessly. So did Kitty and Jubilee. All three girls wanted to help, but none knew exactly how. Jubilee was too weak to be of any use, and Kitty had no offensive attack to speak of at this range. The only person left was Tabby, and she was almost blacking out from her broken wrist whilst trying to support Kurt's weight with her other hand.
Sabertooth crossed the room, casually wrenching Rogue's sword out and flinging it aside like it was nothing. He was wounded in several places, and blood liberally matted his coat and clothes, but he paid none of it any heed. He had eyes only for Rogue, who was shaking her head and trying to get to her feet without falling over.
Tabby looked around, dark spots at the edges of her vision. She blinked hard, trying to clear them. As she did so, something caught her eye – or rather somethings. To be precise, her fretful gaze had fallen upon the foodstuffs that had fallen from the pantry. One of the sacks had split open, spilling a powdery white substance all over the floor.
Slowly, a half-forgotten memory surfaced – one that might prove the crux of who was victorious this night.
Once, when she'd been on kitchen-duty, she remembered having a conversation with one of the Initiates. He wasn't much older than her – probably just a few winters more – and she'd been stuck on him at the time despite only being a lowly Underling and relatively new to the temple. She'd followed him around, even to the extent of volunteering herself to work in the kitchens when he was there, and listening, enrapt, to everything he had to say. He'd been one of Initiate McCoy's pupils when still an Underling, and had designs on becoming a scholar himself some day, so he'd had plenty to speak of.
It was during one of these 'conversations' where he talked and she listened that he'd mentioned something about the explosive properties of certain common substances. He'd cited flour as one of them. Apparently, if ignited, it was as volatile as the gunpowder King Windergard's army used in their canons.
The germ of an idea turned over in Tabby's mind. Laying Kurt's head tenderly on the floor, she got to her feet and scuttled across the room, keeping low so nobody noticed her. She was sneaking by, but she wasn't being especially sneaky about it.
Rogue gave an 'oomph' as she was swatted aside again, and hit the floor with her cheek still stinging. Her mouth tasted strongly of blood. Before she could do anything she felt an inhumanly large hand grasp the back of her cloak to winch her up again. Sabertooth snarled in her face, so close that flecks of spit bridged the gap between them and she smelled the stench of raw meat on his breath. A feral light blazed in his eyes, and Rogue felt herself go cold. There wasn't even a hint of compassion there; only a wantonness and lust for blood. Emilios was more beast than human now – in mind as well as in body – and quite, quite mad.
She kicked out on instinct, driving one foot against his ribcage and one deep into his groin. There was no satisfying crack, or any loosening of his grip, but he let out a howl of pure outrage and drew back a claw to rip out her throat.
A bobbing blonde head appeared beside them. Using Sabertooth's focus on his prey as cover, Tabby had slipped past and now awkwardly pushed Rogue's sword back into her hand. Rogue needed no further bidding and willingly thrust it as best she could into Sabertooth's midriff. It pierced easily, and he yowled so loudly it deafened the room. Yet because of the angle he held her, Rogue's strike wasn't a death-wound, and though he stumbled backwards clutching his torn and bleeding midriff, the murderous beacon in his eyes showed no signs of dimming. Rather, it seemed to grow brighter, fuelled by pain and his own frenzied temper.
Yet there was one positive aspect of it. Rogue was free once more, and she dropped to the floor into a combat crouch, watching Sabertooth carefully. He'd pinned her several times now, and she'd been rescued more than she should've. She wouldn't let that happen again.
The two hunters eyed each other, each sizing the other's condition up and where best to strike next. It was like two players choosing the opening gambit in a game – a deadly game of cat and cat, and mouse and mouse.
Then they flew at each other. Steel flashed, claws struck, muscles tightened and wrenched and slackened again, and they stood once more facing off against each other. Resentment burned in both of their gazes, though the sources differed.
Rogue fought for herself and her own vengeance, but part of her also for her friends, and for Pietro and all the hurt his mentor had caused him.
Sabertooth fought for nothing but hate, and because he couldn't get at his true prize – Logan the Swift. Rogue was only the next best thing to him, but she was enough. More than enough. To slay her would be to slay an integral part of Logan – something he'd nurtured and guided, and maybe even loved in his own brutish way.
Kitty watched with bated breath. Jubilee still leaned on her shoulder, but now she had Kurt at her feet to worry about too. In between looking at Rogue and Sabertooth, her gaze also took in the two inert bodies of the man-beast's other assassins, who lay unconscious on the floor some distance away. There was no telling when these two would wake up, and when they did there was no way they could stand against three trained killers at once. From what she'd learned from Rogue, these assassins weren't going to give up or relinquish the hunt. To do so would be to invite death on themselves by the council and become outcasts like her. They'd fight to the last, and that fact in itself was scarier than any sword-blade.
It was nearly as scary as the strange look in Rogue's eyes as she squared off against Sabertooth. There was something very cold in them now; a kind of single-minded concentration that could be called ruthlessness by a casual onlooker. It was as though nothing else in the room existed except herself, Sabertooth, and whatever immediate surroundings needed to be navigated.
The last time she looked like that she'd killed the Displacer Beast – and almost died in the process.
Abruptly, Kitty noticed something else, which she hadn't expected to see and couldn't fathom. Tabby was darting about the room with a sizable sack under her arm, spreading what appeared to be flour everywhere she went. Tables, chairs and generally ruined kitchen accoutrements were covered in a fine dust of white, making it seem like a strange, soft snow had fallen indoors. Neither Rogue nor Sabertooth had noticed since they were too wrapped up in their struggle – which, Kitty got the feeling, was exactly what Tabby had been hoping for.
"There now," she said, scuttling over and fixing Kitty with a pained but concerted stare. "I need a distraction. Something that can keep him," she nodded at Sabertooth, "occupied long enough for you to get away through the wall."
"Through the wall?" Kitty repeated, nonplussed. "Why through the wall?"
"Because it leads to outside. The stables aren't very far from here, and you need horses to get away."
"Erm, in case you hadn't, like, noticed, we can't get away. That guy's completely set on killing Rogue. He isn't about to let up any time soon." Kitty bit her lip, and added in a smaller voice, "Neither is she. I think."
"I know," Tabby replied. "That's why I need a distraction – something to pull them out of … whatever freakiness it is they're in." She looked at Rogue and Sabertooth. "They're not even fighting properly anymore. It's like they're dancing." She sounded slightly disgusted. Then she shook herself. "Anyway, as long as you guys can get away, I can take care of the rest."
"You can?" Kitty was still unenlightened as to what Tabby was planning – especially how it concerned the flour spread around. Then she sighed. Well, I guess anything's better than nothing. I sure don't have any better ideas. But a distraction…? "The table!" When Tabby looked confused, she went on, "We can ram him with it – you and I. That should get him off Rogue's back long enough for us to get out. I can phase us all through the wall if she, like, carries Kurt. Reckon that'll be enough?"
Tabby's expression told of pensiveness. She looked at her snapped wrist, which was puffing and going a peculiar shade of purple. "A table? You couldn't think of something a little smaller?"
"You got any better ideas?"
"Not right this second, no. I'm not a fine details girl. I'm more into the big picture. We'll have to leave these two here though."
"Can't be helped. We'll be taking them with us, so we have to come back for them."
Suddenly Tabby looked profoundly sad. "Stupid girl," she murmured.
Kitty opened her mouth to protest, and then shut it again in dawning realisation. "You're not coming with us, are you?"
"It's the only way. My plan'll only work with me here to set it off. Besides, none of you could stay anyway. You're all needed outside of this dump."
"You're needed too!" Kitty was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to prevent this girl she didn't particularly like from doing something they might all regret.
Tabby looked away. "Not as much as I need to do this. Please understand; it's the only way. It's a sketchy plan, and kind of dumb, but it'll work better than anything safer. It'll put that hairy bozo out of commission for good."
Kitty looked at her pleadingly. Tabby stared right back.
Rogue yelped in pain and rage.
Kitty's face switched to an uncomfortably neutral expression and she nodded. Though her movements were small, her eyes told of a profound gratefulness that could never be put into words – as well as a rare breed of anger. They rose, making sure Jubilee and Kurt were safe for the time being, but as they crept off towards one of the overturned tables, Tabby caught Kitty's arm.
"I almost forgot," she whispered, delving into a pocket in her robe and fishing something out. Hastily she handed over a small phial of translucent blue glass. Liquid sloshed about inside, origin unknown. "Have them drink some of this when they wake up." Tabby commanded, indicating to Jubilee and Kurt. "You and Rogue too if you have to. Initiate Ashari had a feeling you'd need it."
Kitty frowned. "Teah? What- how did she- how did you-"
In spite of their grim situation, Tabby smirked. "Who d'ya think broke her leg today? She gave it to me then – said she had a funny feeling. Now come on. Move it, loser."
Rogue was faring worse than she would've liked, but fought on gamely, delivering cut for slash and thrust for gouge. Sabertooth's face was now nothing more than a mask of blood and fur that he intermittently spat out. Yet she was tiring, whilst he showed no signs of letting up. It seemed that this new body of his provided him with more stamina than she could ever dream of, as well as the extra strength and added bulk.
She was on the retreat backwards again when something large, four-legged, vertically-flat and yelling a war cry rammed into Sabertooth from the side, rendering him stunned on the floor with a … table on top of him?
Someone grabbed her hand and roughly yanked her towards where the Elf and that little temple-punk, Jubilee, were. Rogue discerned a ponytail of brown hair and stumbled along bemusedly as Kitty dragged her over and away from her temporarily fallen enemy.
However, Rogue wasn't so confused as to let herself be led by anyone just yet – especially not from a fight. Especially not from this fight! She pulled her arm away and snarled, "Hold up there! What in all Seven Hells d'ya think you're doing, Shrimp?"
"Getting out of here," came the terse reply, in a tone quite unlike Kitty's usual one. Kitty's voice had three general stages, as far as Rogue could tell: bubbly, afraid, and gently concerned. Now she sounded snappy, like a dog with a too-short leash and a very tight collar. "Through that wall there."
Weird tone or not, Rogue growled. "And Sabertooth? Are you expecting him to just let us walk away? 'Cause if you are, then you're sorely mistaken. I appreciate the assist, but I gotta get back and finish him off - "
"You can't! And you know it!" Kitty spun around to face her. "Look, I know you might not like it, but you can't defeat him this way." Audaciously she poked a finger into Rogue's chest, receiving an enraged glare for her troubles. "The only chance we've got of escaping and getting to Belvedere like we're supposed to is by letting Tabby … is by letting Tabitha handle this situation. She has a plan, and we're going to follow it whether you like it or not!" Blue eyes glared hotly, challenging to be opposed. Rogue was surprised to see that they were shiny with unshed tears.
Something clicked inside her mind. She hadn't been an assassin this long without recognising those particular traits and their origins. "Fine," she conceded with very bad grace. This was her fight, damn it. Hers. Nobody else would get the same visceral satisfaction from - "We'll do it your way."
"Her way," Kitty corrected. "This is Tabby's thing, not mine. Her stupid, gods-be-damned plan, not mine!" She sniffed, turning away. "But it's the only plan we've got. We have to go through with this and let her do what she has to do, because… because it's the only way. There's no time for anything else. You can't beat him. He'll kill you, and then where will we be? Where will anyone be if this stupid prophecy is true? We need to get away. We have to - "
Rogue sensed again that something was awry with this 'plan' of Tabby's, and it served to bolster her suspicions as to the nature of it. Yet she held her tongue, instead barging past the snivelling Kitty with her old rudeness. "C'mon."
Wiping her eyes, Kitty went after her.
Rogue hefted Kurt onto her shoulder, wincing slightly as her injuries made themselves excruciatingly known under his weight. With a little help, Jubilee was lifted into a similar stance on Kitty, and the four swivelled to face the way by which they would make good their escape.
The wall itself was sooty from Tabby's explosions, and streaked where Rogue had hit it and slid down. Kitty reached out and touched Rogue's hand as they walked and staggered near, and Rogue felt a curious sense of nothingness flow through her body. It seemed to emanate out of her chest, enveloping her entire frame in the space of a few seconds. She felt cold, yet warm, with prickles racing up and down her skin – truly an odd sensation.
However, just as they were about to leave, Tabby reached out and unexpectedly tried to grab Rogue's arm. Her hand passed straight through of course, but both Rogue and Kitty turned to look at her anyway. From the corner of her eye, Rogue saw Sabertooth beginning to stir. He rubbed his head and shoved groggily at the table on his chest. It slid loudly across the floury flagstones. Urgency flared in her gut, along with a powerful urge to go and hit him while he was down – to finish it – and it was only with a supreme amount of effort that she stopped herself snarling.
Tabby followed her gaze and hurriedly gabbled out what she wanted to say, words tripping over each other in their haste to leave her mouth. "Hurry up as fast as you can when you get out there, and take care, all right? Don't screw this up. If you go and die after all this, I'll kill you myself. And when he wakes up, tell Kurt -" She bit her lip uncertainly. "Damn it. Tell him I really do like him. Like, properly. I know I come on a little strong, but – uh, I … I just want him to know that."
At this, Rogue's gaze softened a little. Just a little. "We'll tell him," she promised, gaze sliding sideways once more.
Tabby smiled gratefully, and made as if to push them. "Now get!"
And with that, they got – bolted clean through the stonework and kept on running.
Tabby looked solidly at the spot they'd passed through, raising her hand a little and then thinking better of it. Don't be maudlin, she told herself. Got a job to do, and maudlin ain't in the description.
A grunting roar from behind made her spin on her heel, a grim expression akin to Rogue's own plastered across her face. Sabertooth had recovered his wits enough to see his prey fleeing, and was now bounding across the room towards the wall they'd passed through. Tabby's lip curled in disgust, but she refrained from doing anything just yet. Instead, she slipped sideways, cradling her snapped wrist and leaving him to claw vainly at the blackened brickwork.
Sabertooth bayed his fury at being denied. His rage left deep gouges in the wall, until finally a more rational part of his mind perceived that this course of action wasn't working and that he would have to employ another if he was to catch up with the three Soul Bearers before they got too far away. Their blood was still fresh on him, and the scent drove him wild with the desire to spill more. To taste the sweet nectar of a life vein and feel bones crunching between his teeth. He'd waited so long, and he'd be damned if he was going to let Rogue escape him now! Not when he was so close!
He spun round to make for the door, but was stopped in his tracks by a strange and incongruous sight.
That blonde wench – the one from the temple – was standing square in the doorway and glowering at him. Her stance told of a staunch refusal to move.
He growled, words far beyond him now. One foot edged forward threateningly, followed by its brother. He found himself leaning onto all fours like a true animal, but paid no heed to the humanity that was fast leaving him. All he could think about was The Rogue and her companions getting away whilst he was stuck here in this pustule of goodwill. Saliva dripped through his bared fangs, dribbling to floor with a wet 'splot'.
He'd tear each of their throats out one by one. First that furry elf – the one they all seemed so attached to. Good screams. He'd make them watch as he killed that one; make them all beg for mercy. Then that Changeling girl – tiny shape, easy to break. Snap, snap, snap. Break the bones one by one, until she was too much in agony to get away with her powers. And then finally the Rogue herself. She'd be the sweetest prize of all, especially after watching him kill the two she'd self-appointed herself to protect. Her guilt would make her delectable, as would her pain. Good pain. He loved that kind of pain.
He crept forward a few more feet, but the blonde kid raised one hand. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
He lifted his lip, not understanding. If he had to kill her first then so be it. Muscles knotted to spring.
She pointed at the floor. "You're just getting more of it on you."
Sabertooth looked down, raising one clawed hand to sniff at it. Powder tickled his nostrils and he sneezed several times. What the-? The white stuff was everywhere! On his clothes, his fur, dusted onto the rapidly drying blood caked to his face. The rest of the room too. All of it was obscured with a fine spray. It got into his nose again and made him cough.
Hacking a mulch of it from his craw, he snarled. Cords of sinew rippled like molten steel beneath his pelt. This one carried no weapons. She had no sword or dagger, and his bestial psyche distinguished this as the mark of easy quarry, completely forgetting that other, more secret weapon she concealed.
He remembered, however, the moment she cupped her good palm upward and sparks of light appeared on it – dozen of them, each fizzing merrily. They threw back the ghostly glow, giving her face an unearthly quality in the half-shadows. "You're going to the Seventh Hell, you know."
Too late, Sabertooth recognised what she was up to, and scrabbled towards her to extinguish the energy. Too late, for it was already flying like a wingless bird to land in a patch of particularly thick flour.
For a second nothing happened, and both Sabertooth and Tabby could hear their hearts pounding in their ears, blood rushing around their veins in a mad race that nobody could win. Deafening silence reigned.
Then the room exploded.
The flour ignited with a vague 'whoosh' of orange and blue, which crossed the floor at breakneck speed, encompassing everything with fiery fingers. Tongues of flame reached for the ceiling, climbing higher and higher until finally the entire kitchen rocked and seemed to pulse out and in again like a giant lung. Fire blossomed out of the smashed windows to snake up the sides of the building, touching a copse of pepper trees and setting fire to them as well.
Everything burned. And that which couldn't slowly melted or turned black.
A terrible screaming filled the darkness being beaten back outside. It was pain, sadness, anger, frustration – a broken future and a tarnished past gone in the same moment. It wasn't unlike the famous song sung by swans when they take their dying breaths – maudlin, but magnetic. It was loss and pain, and beauty and goodness. It was smothering of evil, and the sacrifice of one for another. It was a shade of grey amongst the black and white of the world, set to remain for all time in the minds of those who heard to it.
And in an instant it was gone – swallowed up by the roar of hungry flames and collapsing beams, oven doors clanking off as their hinges melted; buried beneath the incinerating and oppressive atmosphere.
And all that was left was the ravenous flourish of fire.
To Be Continued …
Meine Mutti. Sie ist tot. Er tötete sie. – My mother. She's dead. He killed her.
Ich verspreche. – I promise.