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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16


Written by NicoPony
Last updated: 05/06/2007 06:22:13 PM

Chapter 14

During the course of the flight from New York to Ohio, Rogue pondered her recent altercation with Sabretooth. It was strange how suddenly she had gone from homicidal rage to baffled confusion. It was if someone had pulled the plug on her anger, and it had instantly drained away the moment the object of her ire had left the room. She realized that part of her anger to Sabretooth’s taunts was her own, but the single-minded determination to kill had been entirely Death’s contribution. Death didn’t experience emotion the same way anyone sane or rational would. For one, he had no understanding of the signals his brain was sending him. He seemed to be able to turn the emotional stimuli on and off at will. Rogue had misinterpreted his feelings of fear. It wasn’t fear he felt, but an overwhelming sensation of being powerless. As the personification of Death, he was not truly a person, but an inexorable function of life. He was not capable of free-will, but a slave.

’A slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men;’ these were inevitably the factors deciding who lived and who died. Death was merely acting out his part.

Iceman pulled Rogue from her rumination. “Join the X-Men, see the world,” he said. “London... Paris...Cleveland.”

“Bobby, shut up all ready,” Rogue pushed herself up from the padded chair. She walked to the front of the observation deck where the other X-Men gathered. The Conquistador was holding over the city of Cleveland. The city lights danced on the black water of the Cuyahoga River.

“I suppose it’s not as bad as I thought,” Iceman said. “As long as it stays dark.”

“Shall we disembark?” Storm asked. Rogue was momentarily taken aback, startled that Storm had deferred to her as team leader. But Storm had left the team for personal reasons, and she was acting out of respect for Rogue’s position.

Rogue nodded, and led the small group comprising herself, Storm, Iceman and Wolverine, to the port-side of the immense ship. Cannonball would remain behind to pilot, keeping tabs on the team via a global positioning system. Sinister’s lab was a seemingly endless series of tesseract portals connecting one locale to another. There was no telling where they might end up. The door to the Conquistador opened with a clang and whirring of mechanical parts. Iceman generated an ice-slide to take them down to the docks below.

They found themselves on a former loading dock turned concert arena, which was currently deserted save for a few bits of stray rubbish. A barge drifted slowly past; it sounded a whistle like low moan. Beyond the arena stands was a former factory that had been renovated into a nightspot, with retail stores, a club and micro-brewery. The quartet headed across the darkened parking lot, avoiding the nighttime revelers. From Rogue’s pilfered memories, she recalled the access-way to Sinister’s lab was in an adjacent building, which had not been renovated. The entryway would probably not be here much longer, as the improvements to the city progressed. The former steel factory would likely be demolished.

Rogue stared at the building for several long moments while searching Death’s memories. “This way, I think.”

She came to a heavily padlocked door. Wolverine raised his claws, but Storm put a hand on his arm. “Logan, if you don’t mind?” She held a lock pick between her forefinger and thumb. “I could use the practice.”

Apparently, the weather goddess recalled breaking and entering as easily as riding the proverbial bicycle: as something one never forgets. She made quick work of the silent security alarms and the multiple locks on the door. The X-Men entered the empty factory. The night sky shown blue through the high clerestory windows. They walked across the work floor to where the managerial offices had once been, trailing footsteps behind them in the dust. The building had likely gone unused for the last fifty years.

“This is it,” Rogue said, putting her hand to the rather mundane looking office door. She gave the door a push, but it didn’t move. “Another lock.” Rogue said, and gestured for Storm.

Storm examined the door, fiddled with the lock and turned the doorknob. The door did not pull in or out. “That’s strange,” Storm said, giving the doorknob a final rattle.

“Well, now it’s time for my kind of entering, heavy on the breaking,” said Wolverine.

“No, wait!” Rogue said, seizing the knob again. Instead of pushing or pulling, she slid the door to the side and into a pocket in the door jamb. Wolverine looked disappointed. The four X-Men stared down a long corridor. It was dimly lit; one of the lighting fixtures above sputtered and flickered off as they watched.

“Sinister forget to pay the power bill, or something?” Iceman asked.

“Well...this is for all the marbles,” Rogue said with a steadying breath, and started off down the hall. The others followed suit. When they came to the end of the corridor, they found themselves staring into an expansive circular open area which extended several stories up and down. A railing ran along the perimeter of the open circle. Iceman walked to it and peered up and down, a long whistle escaping his lips. Several strange tanks hung suspended in the center of the open area. Some were empty, but the others held clones in varying stages of development. Live wires, jolting with electricity, hung from above and shot sparks. One of the forms in the tanks jerked spasmodically, but then lay eerily still.

“What the hell happened here?” growled Wolverine.

“It looks as though there has been an attack,” said Storm.

“Hey, do y’all have any idea where you’re at?” came a tinny voice from the GPS unit on Rogue’s forearm. It was Cannonball from the Conquistador.

“Looks like some sort of clone processing plant,” replied Rogue. “What does the GPS say?”

“Well, it looks t’me as though you’re in Tibet!” exclaimed Cannonball through the speaker. “D’you want me to rendez-vous with you there?”

“No, just hold where you are for now, until we get a better understanding of what’s going on here,” Rogue said.

“Any idea of where to go next?” Iceman asked.

Rogue’s nose scrunched up as she concentrated. “Well, I think if we’re t’find these missing kids, we’ve got to get to a lower level.”

“No problemo,” said Iceman, as he formed a rather steep slide spiraling downward. “Ladies first!”

“Thank you, Robert, but Rogue and I will be providing our own transportation,” Storm replied, and with a gust of air, lifted from the platform and soared below. Rogue flew after her. Iceman looked hopefully at Logan.

Wolverine grumbled: “I’d better not get freezer burn on my butt.”

“Well, there’s another one,” said Iceman dully. “Which one was that, can you tell?”

Wolverine pulled a bone fragment from where it had embedded itself in the wall. “I’m guessing Riptide,” he replied.

Riptide’s corpse lay broken and burned along the center of the hallway. Rogue crouched beside the deceased Marauder, and rubbed a finger along the soot surrounding the body. She left a silvery smear behind in the soot. “This one’s killed the same way,” she said. “Blown to pieces.”

“You’da thought someone would’ve come running, after hearing an explosion like that,” said Wolverine. “But this one’s gotta be several levels away from the last one we found. These people are scattered everywhere.”

“This same tactic was employed against us,” spoke Storm. “We were confused and scattered during the Marauder’s attack.”

The X-Men mulled this over before continuing down the hall. They were less cautious now that they had come across their third corpse and had yet to encounter any obstacle.

“So, the question is, who got here before us?” Iceman asked. “Who got the jump on ’em?”

The corridor ended in a large room, which contained a profusion of electronic components and monitoring equipment. The same damage they’d seen in the rest of the base continued throughout the room.

“Wait, I think I’ve been here before,” Rogue said, bringing the group to a halt. “’Course now it’s a little worse for wear.”

“You were here? Or are you remembering something from Death’s memories?” Storm asked.

“No, I’m almost positive. This is where we met up with---.”

There was a shifting in the damaged equipment. The team froze in place, readying themselves for an unknown attack. An overturned chair strung with cables was kicked aside by a combat-booted foot. The power vampire known as Threnody pulled herself from the wreckage, her body riddled with mortal wounds. However, the woman who had mastered death pulled herself to her feet to stand swaying before the X-Men. Her body crackled with unreleased energy.

“Threnody!” Iceman exclaimed, as he moved toward the injured woman. “What are you doing here? What’s happened?”

“Stay away!” Threnody shrieked. Her eyes were crazed.

“Easy, girl,” Wolverine growled. “Just back down now.”

Threnody laughed a mad, unhinged laugh. “Oh, I wouldn’t kill you X-Men. I’ve absorbed enough death energy, I could bring this whole damned place down around your ears. Another death would be too much for me to handle.”

“Thren, who did this?” Iceman asked.

Threnody staggered like a drunk. “It was Death. Or Gambit. No, definitely Gambit. That’s why I can’t sense him anymore. Where is he...?” Her voice had slipped into a whisper, but then she suddenly shrieked: “Where is he!? Where is he!? I need him!”

“Calm down!” Rogue said, extending her hand towards Threnody. “Just settle yourself. You need help. Just take it easy, and we’ll get you outta here.”

“Don’t touch me!” Threnody stumbled away from Rogue, and fell. Frantic to escape, she began to crawl away from Rogue. “Don’t touch me! Leave! Get out! You’ll ruin everything!”

“Threnody, what are you talking about,” Storm entreated. “Please, we need you to explain to us.”

“It’s all her fault!” Threnody shouted, pointing an accusatory finger at Rogue. “All of it! Her fault!”

Beast polished the small, stamp-sized implant he’d recovered from Arclight’s body with a soft rag. The chip had been right where Sabretooth had said it would be. Hank set the chip on his knee, and adjusted his eyeglasses for a closer look. Scratching his head with a single claw, Beast pondered the functioning of the device. Given the speed with which the Marauders were able to signal a tesseract portal, he hypothesized that the implant was likely to be triggered by an electrical synapse; activated reflexively by the brain. He wondered how he would be likely to simulate an activation without actually implanting the device within himself. Perhaps a brief electrical impulse from a diode? He rubbed his furry head, causing it to crackle with static electricity. The air was always so dry down here, he thought idly. His blue eyes brightened momentarily, and he began to vigorously rub his head with both hands. Then, he slowly extended a finger toward the chip. There

was a small crackle of static and suddenly, resident genius Hank McCoy, vanished.

Sarah had been hearing the sounds of destruction echoing down the halls for the better half of the last hour. With increasing dread, she realized the sounds of explosions were growing nearer. There was one last bang, and Sarah saw a flash of pinkish light flash past the window of her cell. Then there came resounding clangs of cell doors being thrown open. Sarah shook both with adrenaline and the last vestiges of fever which had racked her body. Whatever recent indignity Sinister had inflicted on her had left her sick with what Sarah hoped was just a mild case of flu. Though, where Sinister was concerned, she doubted she would be so lucky.

Sarah heard excited voices in the hallway. Children’s voices. A woman shouted: “Shut it, you brats!” and the cacophony suddenly ceased.

What was going on out there? Sarah wondered. Her cell door creaked open, revealing the creature calling himself Death. His face and hair were splattered with blood, which had begun to dry in rust colored spots. His clothes were slightly singed, and his eyes emanated a weird glow of pinkish energy. Stranger still, he was holding a toddler in one arm. The child was dressed in a simple white shift, and Sarah could only distinguish her sex by the simple rag doll she held in her hands. The little girl was dark skinned, and her head was covered in a riot of curls.

The man walked over to Sarah’s bed, and set the baby down on her feet. The little girl wavered, and then clung to Death’s legs, begging to be picked back up. Instead, the man sat on the edge of Sarah’s bed.

“What do you want?” Sarah snarled.

“I want you to lissen to me,” the man said. “Sarah, some things were said and done t’you, things I regret. These things were done for the benefit of other ears and eyes. Loyalties had t’be proved. And I ’pologize for usin’ you this way.”

Sarah stared at the man. This was a bizarre turn of events. His voice, while still hoarse, now had a different cadence. “You apologize?” she hissed. “Do you think I’m going to forgive you!?” Her arms pulled against the restraints.

“I know what all you’ve been put through. More than anyone your age should have t’suffer. I know things have been done t’make you question who y’are. Believe me, I can sympathize. You and I both have learned t’live a dual life.”

Sarah had nothing to say to this. The memories from her experiences with S.H.E.I.L.D. were fragmented; she’d had two personalities at the time.*

“I know you pride yourself on survivin,’” he continued. But there’s more t’life, to your life, than just gettin’ by.”

His hand moved to the thick leather restraints binding her leg to the bed. “Some of us are destined for greater things. I seen it in you. You’re more than a survivor, you’re a leader...and maybe a savior.” The buckles rattled as he pulled the straps around her left leg free. “You could choose a lesser path, the path to revenge, t’hate. My path. Or you could choose something more.” All the while he spoke, he continued to unfasten the belts around Sarah’s ankles, thighs, biceps, her wrists. His eyes, still frightening, but different now, bore into hers. “They’s people who need you now, t’take care of ’em. Like this one here,” he nodded at the small girl at his feet. “Well...what’ll it be? Do you wanna survive, or do you really want to live?”

Freed now, Sarah lunged forward. Her arms flung around Gambit’s neck, and she dug her fingers into his shoulders.

“I knew it wasn’t you, I knew it,” she whispered into his hair and she held him close. “How dare you, how dare you lie to me like that!”

Gambit pulled himself free from Sarah’s embrace. He shook his head, his expression miserable. “C’mon mignonne, it’s time to get.”

He stood and scooped up the child. Sarah stood on shaky legs and followed after him. In the hall, Sarah found several teenage children, just younger than Sarah herself. They were all dressed in hospital gowns. The nervous teens were crowded around a tall, blond woman who stood with her hands on her hips. “Can we go now?” she whined. The teens fearfully backed away as Gambit approached.

“Take Antienne,” Gambit said, holding the toddler to the woman.

“No way, I don’t do kids. Especially not sick, drooling kids,” the woman tried to wave Gambit away.

“You won’t get sick,” Gambit told her. “I’ve all ready given you the vaccine imprinted with your own X-factor. So take this baby, Regan.” He forced the little girl into Regan’s arms. Regan looked at the baby, who promptly sneezed into her face.

“Oh, gah, bleah!” Regan said, wiping the spray from her cheek. The baby giggled.

Gambit turned back to Sarah. “Marrow, I need you to take this access way,” he pointed down the hall. “Follow the yellow lights along the floor, they’ll lead you to a sort-of door. When you get there, you’ll enter these coordinates,” he rattled off a string of numbers, “and go through the portal when it opens. Can you repeat those numbers?”

Marrow responded affirmatively.

Gambit nodded, and said: “You’ll be standing right in front of a safe house when you arrive. Regan will use her powers to disguise it once you are inside. Stay there until help arrives.”

“Where are you going?” Marrow asked. “Why aren’t you coming with us?”

“I’m going to make sure you’re found by the right people. And then I have to settle up wit’ the runner.**” he said as he started off in the opposite direction. “Go now, y’have to hurry.”

(*Spiderman/Marrow one shot)

(**gambling lingo: the runner collects bets and makes payoffs.)

“What’s my fault?” Rogue asked Threnody, though pieces of Death’s memory were clicking into place in her head. She began to tremble slightly.

“All of this!” Threnody gesticulated wildly. “Sinister used Death to bring me here. He wanted to use me again, to find dying mutants, since there weren’t many of us left. But then, I found the infected ones...”

“Infected...?” Rogue asked, her blood going cold.

“And they all led back to you!” Threnody cried.

“No!” Rogue cried. “No, I’m cured! Strain 88 is gone, Sabretooth’s healing factor saw to it!”

“Wrong! You’re not cured, you’re some sort of Typhoid Mary! Everyone you touch dies!”

“That’s impossible,” Rogue cried, desperate now. “I haven’t touched anyone, I can’t!”

“You touched Sabretooth to cure yourself, and he carried the virus to those sorry Morlocks when he tried to escape...” Threnody put her arms around herself, and swayed from side to side.

“And the Shaws, them too!? I haven’t seen either of them in years!”

“The mutant thief, Pulse, I think he was called...”

Rogue slapped her gloved hands against her face, covering her eyes. “You’re lying, you’re lying!”

“I’m afraid not, Rogue,” said a voice from a balcony above. The five mutants in the room looked up to see a figure. Nearby sparks caused reflections to dance across the metal components attached to his uniform.

“Scalphunter!” Wolverine cried, as everyone scrambled for cover. However, Scalphunter failed to take aim or fire.

“Threnody,” he said, “you’d best get out of here while you can.”

“No!” she cried. “I have to find him!”

“Leave Death be,” Scalphunter replied. “He doesn’t want you.”

Threnody’s face contorted with fury. “But I love him!”

“You poor, deluded---,” Scalphunter raised his rifle.

“It’s that brat he cares about! I can bring him back if I have her!” Threnody shrieked.

Before Scalphunter could fire, Iceman’s arm flung out and the end of the sniper’s rifle froze. It exploded in a blast of fire and flying metal.

Threnody whipped around and saw Wolverine advancing on her. She quickly pressed a series of buttons on the bracelet on her forearm. As Wolverine leapt, she vanished with a clap of air. Storm rose into the air, sending debris and electrical wires flying. Scalphunter threw up his arms. “Stop!” he called. “Stop! Truce!”

“I think it is a little late for that,” Storm said, firing a lightning bolt at his feet. The balcony collapsed, sending Scalphunter sprawling on the floor below.

Scalphunter sent a spattering of bullets into the air. “Listen to me!” he cried. “If you continue to attack me, I’ll have no choice but to retaliate!”

“We’ve all made our choices,” Wolverine snarled, falling onto the Marauder and forcing his weapon away. Wolverine raised his clawed fist.

“You don’t understand!” Scalphunter replied. “I’ve not made a choice of my own free will in years. I’m simply not programmed that way!”

“Logan, wait!” Rogue said, before Wolverine could silence the Marauder forever.

Wolverine stood and yanked the sniper to his feet. The other X-Men approached, threats flashing in their eyes.

“So get talkin,’” Rogue snapped. “Is what Threnody babbling about true?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Scalphunter replied.

“And Gambit is responsible for all this?” Storm gestured to the surrounding damage.

“He is,” Scalphunter replied. “He sort of, came back to himself, after you touched him.” He gestured to Rogue. “This is about as rational as he’s been in awhile. He’s destroyed all the labs, the equipment, the cloning processes and the clones.”

“Save you,” said Rogue coldly.

“Right. For the first time in a long time, I’ve got a bid for freedom.”

“And where is Remy now?” Storm asked.

“He’s gone after Sinister,” Scalphunter replied.

“That’s suicide,” Rogue said. “We have to go after him.”

“What about the kids?” Iceman asked.

“I can help you there,” Scalphunter offered. “If you let me get my hands on that computer.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Wolverine.

“I figure it would greatly increase my chances for survival.”

“I guess he’s got a point,” Iceman relented.

Beast found himself standing on some sort of platform. The circular room was surrounded by a wall of glass which was cracked in several places. He stepped from the platform and pressed the glass door. It fell over with a crash, and Beast winced.

A crunch of glass made him turn his head.

“Ah, Doctor McCoy,” said Sinister. He was holding what appeared to be a computer motherboard. He let it fall from his hands and tumble onto the pile of shattered debris at his feet. “I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a bad moment.”

Cautiously, Beast stepped into the room. “What’s happened here?”

“Monsieur LeBeau took it upon himself to systematically destroy everything I’ve worked toward for the last one hundred and fifty years,” though his words were light, his expression was murderous. “You wouldn’t, by chance, know anything about this?”

Beast was absorbed with taking in the damage. “What? No! Our Cajun compatriot has been incommunicado as of late. I imagine that you may have had some part in that?”

“I did. However, I’d taken steps to ensure any...differences in opinion...would have had rather unfortunate results for dear Remy.”

“And yet he still betrayed you?”

“Troubling, isn’t it?” Sinister said. “A small slight would have caused him a great deal of pain. A betrayal such as this,” Sinister gestured to the wreckage, “would have turned his brain to a pudding.”

“I imagine that doesn’t leave much room for disagreements,” Beast said coldly.

“What brings you here, Doctor McCoy? Is it Gambit you wish to discuss, or do you have some other purpose?”

Beast swallowed his anger. “There is the small matter of the mutant population’s rapidly declining numbers. Which was only made worse by the Marauder’s recent foray onto the Institute’s grounds.”

“An unfortunate, but necessary evil,” Sinister said, his voice an emotionless void.

“How so?”

“Those mutants had contracted a virus which, as yet, remains incurable.”

“So you’d thought to simply kill the infected,” Beast stated.

“The virus was spreading at an uncontrollable rate. And all evidence of infection traced back to one source.”

“A Patient Zero?”

Sinister nodded. “Your own Rogue. The virus she was infected with, Strain 88, passes from one victim to another with nothing more than a simple touch. Skin to skin contact.”

Beast’s expression was one of shock. “Strain 88 was created specifically for Rogue. And the healing factor borrowed from Creed would have eradicated the infection.”

“I’m afraid not. The healing factor would not seek out the virus, as the infected cells replicate the owner’s own X-factor gene. That is, until the victim comes in contact with another mutant. The proteins surrounding the infected cells activate through skin contact, seizing onto the next mutant’s X-factor and replicating it. Creed’s healing abilities would erase the foreign cells, but the virus remains in his system. In Rogue’s body, the virus so closely replicates her own mutant abilities, it remained virtually undetectable.”

Sinister had turned and walked through a connecting passageway. Beast chose to follow him, though Sinister had given no indication for him to do so.

“Then, in essence, Strain 88 turns its victims into...Rogues?” Beast asked.

Sinister nodded. “The virus is greedy. Once it latches onto a new X-factor, it makes an imprint on the infected mutant. However, if the infected mutant comes in contact with a second or third mutant, the X-factor doubles, triples. Inevitably, the immune system begins to attack itself, then shuts down, resulting in death.”

“Rogue had seen evidence in Death’s memories that you were working on a vaccine.”

“Oh, so she came in contact with Death? It’s no wonder he’s been out of sorts as of late,” Sinister mused. “No matter, the blood of Apocalypse afforded him with immunity to all diseases.”

“Sinister! The vaccine?” Beast prompted.

The pair had arrived at a laboratory. Electronic equipment had been broken, beakers and vials shattered and crushed underfoot, tables overturned. Several animals freed from cages ran about. One of the white cats, one eye blue the other yellow, was eating one of the white lab rats. It darted off with its kill. Several fluids mixed on the floor, hissing and smoldering.

Sinister sighed. “Destroyed, apparently,” he finally said. “If it was Gambit’s intention to ruin me, he has succeeded.”

“Is it possible to replicate the process you used to create the vaccine?” Beast asked.

“I derived the vaccine from the pathogens produced by the de-powered mutants,” Sinister said. “They possess a neutralized X-factor---.”

“I speculated as much,” Beast interrupted excitedly.

Sinister gave him a quelling look that indicated he was not used to interruption.

“...and therefore produce a weakened strain of the Rogue Virus,” Sinister continued. “I then re-introduced the infected mutants to their own pre-M-Day DNA, thankfully supplied by your own laboratory.”

Beast scowled at the geneticist. “It never occurred to you to simply ask?”

“I thought you might be adverse to my methods of dealing with the spread of the virus.”

“A simple quarantine would have managed it!” Beast shouted.

“Perhaps in the earliest stages, if the virus was recognizable. Or perhaps you should have just allowed Rogue to die? Despite the trouble it caused me,” here Beast made a derisive noise, but Sinister ignored him and continued: “the virus had unforeseen benefits. We can, in effect, re-infect the former mutant population with an active X-factor.”

“Do you expect people to just volunteer to be infected with a virus?” Beast asked, taken aback.

“I wasn’t planning on seeking recruits. I intended to acquire those whose mutantcies would be viable for future generations.”

“Do you have any ethical sense whatsoever?”

“We’re talking about the success of the mutant race, Doctor McCoy,” Sinister replied. “I’m willing to do what it takes, and you needn’t sully your hands in the matter.”

Beast eyed Sinister with icy outrage. “And where are the children now?” he asked finally.

Sinister beckoned him along, and the two left the ruined laboratory. A rat scampered down the hall ahead of them and through a broken door, which hung crookedly off its hinges. Beyond the door was a corridor lined with a series of open cell doors.

At the end of the hall was a body. Beast leapt past Sinister and turned the body over. It was not one of the kidnapped teenagers, but Vertigo. Sinister followed Beast at a more sedate pace, glancing into each cell as he passed. “Empty,” he said, but as he passed the last cell, he was drawn up short by a blast of bright yellow energy. Sinister was knocked back against the adjacent wall, but the damage inflicted to him quickly repaired itself.

“Gone!” came a shriek from inside the cell. “She’s gone!”

Beast braced himself for an attack as Threnody stumbled from the cell. She looked wildly around, though her eyes didn’t seem to see Beast at all.

“Threnody,” Sinister said, slowly approaching the crazed woman, “where have the children gone?”

Threnody shook her head. “I don’t know! You took her away from me! Give her back!”

“You’re suffering from severe withdrawal, Threnody. Even if I knew where your child was, I would not give Antienne to you, lest you make another attempt to take her life.”

Threnody threw herself at Sinister with a despairing wail. She beat on his chest with ineffective fists. Sinister grasped her by the shoulders and shook her, causing her hair to fly around her face.

“Now, that’s enough!” Beast cried. “Leave her be!”

Sinister ceased shaking Threnody and stared her in the face. “Concentrate, woman. You should be able to detect Death wherever he’s gone. Through him we should be able to discern where the patients have gone.”

Threnody moaned, and her head fell forward onto Sinister’s chest. “Oh, he’s gone, gone, gone. It’s all your fault. I told you not to change him back. I told you...” Her eyes suddenly blinked open and she gasped. A sequence of numbers flashed on the bracelet she wore on her forearm. She looked at the bracelet. “Oh,” she said softly. “I felt him just then...”

“Sinister, what---,” Beast began, but Sinister seized Threnody’s wrist, and depressed a button. A tesseract door sprung open, and dragging Threnody behind him, Sinister vanished before Beast could react.

Beast ran to where the door had popped out of existence and looked hopelessly around. There was nothing and no one. At a loss, he approached Vertigo’s body. Having turned her over onto her back, he revealed something hidden beneath her body. Beast picked up a playing card, sticky with the dead clone’s blood. Turning it over, he saw it was the King of Diamonds; ’the man with the ax,’ as the card was nick-named. Written in the margin were the words: “Follow Suit.”

“Jinkies,” Beast said.

Scalphunter had arranged and repaired the broken computer components with superhuman speed and skill. Aided by the mechanical components secreted on his uniform, he was able to reassemble a working terminal within several minutes. He was seated on the floor with the X-Men gathered around him.

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “Gambit erased the travel logs before destroying the computers. I’m beginning data recovery now.”

“Travel logs?” Iceman asked. “Who’s your travel agent, and what made him think that Cleveland was a hot destination spot?”

Scalphunter didn’t bother to spare Iceman a glance. “Sinister keeps record of anyone who comes in or goes out of the tesseract portals,” he pointed to the screen as a several lines of code appeared. “I’ll see if I can pull up the records of the last few hours.” His hands flew over the keyboard, which was missing a few letters. “This must be Sunfire,” Scalphunter said. Though the code was occasionally broken up by anomalous glyphs, he still seemed to be able to understand the readout. “And judging from the registered body mass of this one, I’d say Random was able to pull himself back together and ’port out. Hm.”

“What is it?” Rogue asked, peering at the screen and trying to make sense of it.

“It says five unregistered mutants arrived around the same time. But there are only four of you. did you lose someone along the way?”

“No,” Rogue replied. “We left Cannonball behind on the Conquistador.”

“Well, judging from the readout, this one’s no lightweight.”

“A mystery for another time then,” Storm said. “Where are the children?”

Scalphunter scrolled to the end of the list. “The record shows nine, no ten, mutants left about twenty minutes ago. The portal isn’t far from where the kids were being held.”

“Ten?” Storm asked. “We have only accounted for eight kidnapped teenagers.”

“Nine are kids,” Scalphunter said, “guessing from their body weight alone. One adult, registered as Malice. Though that is not necessarily the case any longer.”

“So, Lady M was possessed by Malice,” Wolverine said. “But now she’s not?”

“As far as I know, Malice is dead. Again,” Scalphunter said.

“Does Sinister have access to these files?” Rogue asked.

“If there’s a working computer somewhere in the facility, then yes,” Scalphunter replied.

“Delete these files,” Rogue commanded. “Then show us where the portal is.”

Beast bounded down the hallway, but having failed to locate another clue, reversed course and started down another corridor. He was rewarded by finding another playing card, wedged into the crack between two wall panels. This one was a Four of Diamonds. He was getting closer. He added the card to the other nine he’d collected so far. The suit seemed to be laid out in descending order, like a game of Solitaire. He was being lead to...who knows what. Beast debated following the clues left behind by someone so clearly deranged, but with Sinister gone, he found he had little else to go on.

Beast skidded to a halt when the sound of voices echoed down the hall. Hefting one of the broken wall panels, he readied to throw. The Marauder Scalphunter exited a nearby portal and quickly ducked as the panel soared over his head, nearly decapitating him. Scalphunter turned on Beast, readying a weapon when Wolverine jumped from the portal and caromed into Scalphunter’s back. Both men fell to the floor. Beast vaulted after Wolverine, but the sight of Rogue drew him up short. He stumbled in his effort to avoid contact with her and crashed to the floor.

“Henry!” cried Storm, as she and Iceman filed out from the passageway. “Are you all right?”

“Storm!” exclaimed Beast, equally surprised. “What on earth---.”

Wolverine continued to grapple with Scalphunter. They were apparently trying to throttle one another. “Wolverine, stop!” Rogue cried. “Stop fighting! You’re only making him worse!”

Wolverine jumped back from Scalphunter, who seemed ready to continue the wrestling match. It took the Marauder several moments before he was able to compose himself.

“Get a grip, man,” Iceman said, and pulled Scalphunter to his feet.

“What’s this? Colluding with the enemy?” Beast said, while swallowing his own guilt. He’d come to see Sinister, after all.

“Greycrow says he knows where the kids have gone to,” Rogue said.

“The portal is not too far,” Scalphunter added, pushing back his ruffled hair.

“For your sake, you’d better be right,” Wolverine snarled at Scalphunter.

“I believe Scalphunter may be telling the truth,” said Beast, showing the others the playing cards he’d found. “I’ve been following Gambit’s trail for the last quarter hour.”

Scalphunter bent and picked up another card: the Three of Diamonds.

“Any idea what’s at the end of this trail?” asked Wolverine.

“Let us hope we find the children, alive safe and well,” said Storm.


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